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Whitney, Women, Addiction and the Press

Posted: 16/02/2012 23:00

The morning after hearing the news of Whitney Houston's death, I found myself standing in a central London newsagents at 7am audibly swearing next to the front pages of the national newspapers. In the days that have followed my anger has not subsided as the headlines have become more and more ridiculous.

It is perhaps not surprising that what appeared this week was not a dignified tribute to an icon but instead a microscopic autopsy of Houston's last hours, contents of stomach included, and increasingly bizarre backstories. The tabloid press can struggle with journalistic ethics surrounding intrusion into grief at the best of times. With the death of Houston they faced two further tests; writing respectfully about women and responsibly reporting drug addiction. On both counts I think they've failed.

On the surface is hardly out of the ordinary for the gutter press and my upset at the handling of her death can partly be accounted for by bias. I am a mega Whitney fan. You can ask anyone who has heard my 3am rendition of I Have Nothing. But there was more to my dissatisfaction than my own opinions and I kept coming back to those two awkward issues.

Despite the fact that nobody yet knows the cause of death in Houston's case the paper's were quick to decide for themselves. Much like with Amy Winehouse, the reason for her death was considered a given before any official statement was made. "Once an addict, always an addict". It's a lazy and inaccurate portrayal of addiction but one all too often taken up by the popular press.

In "The Media Guide to Drugs" from charity DrugScope, designer, Pearl Lowe detailed how she felt she would always be a "junkie" in the eyes of the media. "I'm a mother of four, I work really hard, I have a successful design business... but the drugs overshadow everything I do, because I'll never be allowed to forget it."

The organisation says that the demonisation of drug users in the media can have a great detrimental effect. While it is important to give true and evidence based accounts of the causes and harms of drug use, sensationalised reporting actually can have a negative impact. You'd think splashing tales of death over the front pages would put people off. Well, according to the research it doesn't and can often have the opposite effect. The UK Drug Policy Commission in its submission to the Leveson Inquiry last month picked up on many of the same points.

They commented: "We are not only concerned with the challenge about the reportage of high-profile public figures... the inaccurate initial press assertions that Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose, when subsequent toxicology tests showed that alcohol, and not drugs, was implicated in her death. The desire for a sensational headline appeared in her case to outweigh respect for the family and for accuracy about the cause of her death. What also concerns us is the everyday reporting of people who currently have or previously have had drug addiction problems... this stigma makes it even harder for this group to sustain recovery and rebuild their lives as well as making people reluctant to face up to having a problem and seeking help."

Using celebrities and black-and-white reporting of "the downward spiral" of drugs is a bleak tale, that focuses on the immediate harm and pays little attention to treatments, successful rehabilitation and alternative endings. The emphasis on horror stories and forgone conclusion style reporting paints a hopeless picture for anyone who faces addiction. In the case of Houston, one which is no doubt complex with details outsiders will never be fully privy to, do little than give a superficial and simplistic account of the nature of addiction.

What also struck me was how different the tone of the articles were for Houston than other celebrities with similar lifestyles, namely male celebrities. It's unfair to say this kind of extensive and morbid fascination into the intricate details of her death are because she is a woman. Would this have still happened if she was a man? Yes, I imagine it would to a degree. It is not so much the intense scrutiny, though that is part of it, it is the attitude of many of the articles and the elements on which they focus.

There are clearly double standards when it comes to reporting women in relation to drugs. As often is the case with female substance abuse it is seen as much less tolerated both in the press and more widely and this was shown in Houston's case even before her death.

One example is an article in the Sun which fondly remembers the 'legend' and 'macho' actor Oliver Reed. The paper jovially writes: "you can still, almost, hear movie legend Oliver Reed's drunken laughter echoing in the Maltese pub where he died" before listing his last orders like a trophy. A far cry from the zombie, crazy, wasted, wild-eyed (to use some adjectives I've read) Whitney on her "48-hour binge".

Take George Best, John Belushi, Russell Brand and any other boastful male rockstar. Compare and contrast these 'lads' and 'hellraisers' with Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and you begin to see a pattern. In their media guide, DrugScope also recognises this in its guide: "Women are often seen as doubly bad if they take drugs." Whitney Houston: Addict, mess, tragic, helpless, doomed. Charlie Sheen: Winning!

Many papers have also rather depressingly begun to ask if Houston was secretly a lesbian. I doubt that if Houston were male so much speculation would have be given to her sexuality being an underlying cause for her problems. Similarly much of the reporting has focused on her daughter, her daughters mental state and the impact of her mother's behaviour. DrugScope again notes this as a another common theme in reporting: "Male drug use is often seen as more acceptable than that of women and mothers, in particular, come in for a lot of criticism if they use drugs. Male drug users who are parents are not usually seen in the same sort of way."

Reading the headlines it is easy to forget the Whitney the public first fell in love with and that voice. Houston was a phenomenally gifted singer, an icon, actress and huge personality. A tribute to the niece, the daugther, the mother may yet grace the front pages when she's buried. Sadly however, I suspect I will be avoiding the newsagents for weeks to come.

 

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