If you’re trying to gauge public opinion on matters of the day, then don’t put too much weight on the sort of commentary posted at the bottom of online news articles.

That is the implication of a new study (abstract only) analysing the content of online commentary on news stories about plain tobacco packaging, just published by Becky Freeman, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in the Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney.


Do public health advocates need to get more active in commenting online? **

Becky Freeman writes:

Since last year’s announcement that the government will be implementing world first legislation to mandate that tobacco products must be sold in plain packages, a chorus of “the sky is falling” has been booming from all sectors of the tobacco industry.

Local retailers, funded by transnational tobacco companies, have fronted a campaign arguing that the legislation will not work to reduce tobacco use, will be an inconvenience to shop employees and customers, will cause corner shops to go out of business, and will increase the use of illegal and counterfeit tobacco products. Instead, these groups propose vague alternative measures such as more youth education and running feel-good media campaigns.

Taking public health advice from the tobacco industry is a bit like asking your partner if your new jeans make your bum look big – you’ll never get an honest answer, it’s simply not in either of their interests to give you one.

Putting aside the industry-led rhetoric on why plain packaging shouldn’t be enacted, what did the public have to say about this new initiative?

The ground-breaking policy announcement attracted extensive news media coverage. Analyses of news coverage and letters to editors have been useful in understanding how tobacco related issues are framed in the Australian news media.

Increasingly, the public accesses news media online (this is a no-brainer for Crikey/Croakey readers.) Traditional channels like newspapers allow for limited and editor selected reader response via letters to the editor. By contrast, online news promotes instant reader reaction and participation through simple tools like posting comments and poll voting.

With this in mind, I conducted a study that analysed online news reader reactions to plain packaging announcements. The full study results were published in a paper that can be accessed though the journal Tobacco Control, but in a nutshell, my study found that those opposed to plain packaging were much more likely to post responses to online news stories about the policy.

This is despite public opinion polls that show strong support for tobacco control measures.

What does this mean for public health advocates and policy makers?

It could be that those supporting the policy saw little need to respond to news reports as their views were confirmed and upheld in the government’s decision and consistent with the overwhelmingly supportive reporting of tobacco control issues in Australian news media, whereas those with anti-tobacco control views may feel unrepresented in public discourse.

Little is known about regular posters to newspaper blog communities. A 2010 study showed that negative emotions motivate forum participants to express their opinion when writing a post and the most active users were those with negative views on events.

The online sphere also provides an opportunity for vitriolic critics to bypass traditional editorial gatekeepers and readily publish their responses to news items.

The extent to which the distribution of online comments is then representative of community views on plain packaging is questionable. It may be that some blogs have become popular conduits for critics of government and government policies to voice their opinions.

As smoking and the tobacco industry becomes increasingly denormalised, overwhelmingly anonymous, online avenues may increase in popularity as “safe” outlets for strident pro-smoking views.

Additionally, while tobacco control advocates have long engaged in generating news stories and letters to the editor, little is known about how best to interact with online media and so these voices may be missing from the comments.



** Croakey’s answer to the headline question is, not suprisingly, YES please.

For example, this recent post on gun control drew largely pro-gun comments. It would have been nice to see some more public health peeps engaging with the issues…