How did the Daily Mail get it so wrong? The difference between sensationalist commentary and journalism

Here at AOD Media Watch, we’re used to supporting our friends and colleagues in the media to a better understanding of the issues involved in drugs and drugs policy, and the impact of how these issues are reported affects public views and harms. We hope that our comments are helpful and ensure that the issue receives the honest coverage and debate it deserves.

Following an explicit warning issued by me regarding a very dangerous substance analyzed in Canberra (Ultra Alert Pink Capsules), we at AOD Media Watch were surprised at the scale of inaccuracy in the coverage by the Daily Mail.

The inaccuracy starts even before the title. The link to the story http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4255270/Fake-MDMA-sweeps-Canberra.html is nonsense. It takes a very special gift to start being incorrect in a news story before even the first word of the title. There is no evidence that ‘fake MDMA’ is sweeping Canberra, either from the press release, or from any other data I am aware of.

Moving on to the title: Woman fighting for her life after taking ‘bad batch of MDMA’ – a month after 20 partygoers were hospitalised with similar drug. Nobody was ‘fighting for their life’ in Canberra after taking MDMA. No details have been released regarding the gender or the timing of the presentation. The patient involved is not in hospital, nor were they at the time of the Daily Mail’s release. There is no way that the story’s authors could have arrived at that conclusion, either from any of the information released, or even from any additional attempt at digging up information, because it simply isn’t true. It seems unlikely that our release could have been misinterpreted to the extent that the authors could have arrived at these conclusions. Or perhaps the authors simply decided to invent these elements of the story for the purposes of sensationalism?

The purpose of the release was to disseminate information rapidly, to ensure that no further overdoses occurred. It’s disappointing that it has turned into a piece that has the potential to raise ‘moral panic’ on drugs. Getting these details wrong is not just inaccurate, it’s damaging to the work we are doing to reduce harms.

The images of the capsules involved were disseminated widely, and were openly available. Instead of using it, or contacting any of the agencies who went to great lengths to make themselves available, the Daily Mail instead ran a series of stock photos of pills that had no bearing whatsoever on what other journalists agreed to use to warn the general public. The agent involved wasn’t a pill – it was a capsule. Showing the correct image is part of reducing harms – people then know exactly what to look out for. If images are supplied with a media release, there’s a reason for this and they should be used.

Earlier this month, The Wikimedia Foundation, the group that runs Wikipedia, announced that they would no longer allow the Daily Mail to be used as a source, because of a “reputation for poor fact checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication.” It would appear that in this article, they scored the trifecta.

[Following the writing of this article, a further version appeared on the site http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4258632/Highly-toxic-pink-party-capsules-sold-MDMA.html. It has removed much of the fabrication of the original piece, and has included the photograph of the product. Readers are encouraged to open and read both pieces side by side, as a useful comparison of gossip columnry vs journalism.]

Associate Professor David Caldicott, Emergency Department Consultant, Calvary Hospital, ACT

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