Stigmatisation, Exaggeration, and Contradiction: An Analysis of Scientific and Clinical Content in Canadian Print Media Discourse About Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

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John Aspler
Natalie Zizzo
Emily Bell
Nina Di Pietro
Eric Racine

Abstract

Background: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a complex diagnosis that includes a wide range of neurodevelopmental disabilities, results from exposure to alcohol in the womb. FASD remains poorly understood by Canadians, which could contribute to reported stigma faced by both people with FASD and women who drink alcohol while pregnant.


Methods: To better understand how information about FASD is presented in the public sphere, we conducted content analysis of 286 articles from ten major English-language Canadian newspapers (2002-2015). We used inductive coding to derive a coding guide from the data, and then iteratively applied identified codes back onto the sample, checking inter-coder reliability.


Results: We identified six major themes related to clinical and scientific media content: 1) prevalence of FASD and of women’s alcohol consumption; 2) research related to FASD; 3) diagnosis of FASD; 4) treatment of FASD and maternal substance abuse; 5) primary disabilities associated with FASD; and 6) effects of alcohol exposure during pregnancy.


Discussion: Across these six themes, we discuss three instances of ethically consequential exaggeration and misrepresentation: 1) exaggeration about FASD rates in Indigenous communities; 2) contradiction between articles about the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure; and 3) scientifically accurate information that neglects the social context of alcohol use and abuse by women. Respectively, these representations could lead to harmful stereotyped beliefs about Indigenous peoples, might generate confusion about healthy choices during pregnancy, and may unhelpfully inflame debates about sensitive issues surrounding women’s choices.

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