Prescription hypnotics in the news: A study of UK audiences

Jonathan Gabe, Simon Williams, Catherine Coveney

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In 2012 the UK media reported the results of a paper in the British Medical Journal Open, including the finding that hypnotics increase the risk of ‘premature death’. Taking this media coverage as a case study, the paper explores UK people’s responses and assesses the implications for the debate about the (de)pharmaceuticalisation of sleep. Two hundred and fifty one posts to the websites of 6 UK newspapers were analysed thematically, along with 12 focus group discussions (n=51) of newspaper coverage from one UK newspaper. Four thematic responses were identified: bad science/journalism, Hobson’s choice, risk assessment and challenging pharmaceuticalisation. We found that most people claimed that the story did not worry them, even if they stated that they were using sleeping pills, and that focus group members generally appeared to respond in terms of their pre-existing views of hypnotics. The way in which lay expertise was drawn on in responding to the coverage was one of the most striking findings of the study. People referred to their own or others’ experience of taking hypnotics to recognise the legitimacy of taking them or to weigh up the risks and benefits, as reflexive users. Overall, our case study cautions against making strong claims about the power of the media to legitimate de-pharmaceuticalisation. While the media may have such a role, this is in the main only for those who are receptive to such a message already.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43–52
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date23 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


  • UK,
  • de-pharmaceuticalisation
  • sleeping pills
  • mass media
  • audience response

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