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Lewis, M 2011, 'Herbal medicine and risk constructions: representations in Australian print media', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright M Lewis 2011


This thesis is an exploration of the construction of risk in Australian mainstream and biomedical media representations of herbal medicine (HM). It presents arguments and discussion based on my findings in response to two research questions: What are the dominant topics and frames that occur in media reports about HM? Is there a prevalence of risk references across two printed media forms and all articles?

The construction of risk in media reporting about HM is a specific phenomenon that has received little attention within the discipline that has become known as the sociology of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). As a marginalised form of medicine in the context of mainstream Australian healthcare, HM media representations highlight the numerous tensions that exist between lay and expert knowledges and biomedicine and CAM, as well as the relationship between these forms of knowledge and the multiple ways in which they become mediated socially and politically.

The primary and secondary research of this thesis contributes to the sociological literature about HM as a product and therapy of CAM in the context of media representations and risk. My exploration of media risk representations about HM embraces an interpretivemethodology within the discipline of sociology, drawing from social constructionist and poststructuralist epistemologies.

The primary research consists of two content analyses. The first is a longitudinal manifest analysis of articles about HM or CAM that appeared in Australia’s primary peer-reviewed biomedical journal, The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) from 1966 to 2008. The second study which focuses on news articles from mainstream Australian newspapers blends qualitative and quantitative methods, using manifest content analysis to count the number of specific references to issues about HM, as well as latent analysis to extrapolate how these issues were framed, the frequencies of positive and negative intonation, as well as the main sources used in the texts. This is a content analysis of contemporary media reports, and covers a five-year timeframe, from January 2005 to May 2010.

The findings from these studies reveal that the construction of notions of risk about HM is prevalent in both biomedical media representations, as well as mainstream news reporting. The issue of efficacy is also prominent in both media forms, which highlights the increasing acceptance of HM as a definite or potentially beneficial medicine, but which also portrays it as fraught with risk and requiring astute governance at the same time (whether by the state, industry, the individual or the practitioner).

The mapping of the discourse about HM and CAM in the MJA reveals that there is a notably broad association of risk with HM and CAM in Australia’s primary biomedical journal, a publication with substantial social and political influence. I argue this extensive occurrence of risk-defining associated with HM is a confluence of the professional requirements of risk awareness for biomedical practitioners, doctors’ unfamiliarity with HM and CAM, the legitimisation of biomedical dominance, the issue of publication bias, and also the legitimisation tactics of HM/CAM industries, research institutions and professions.

The mapping of news frames highlights the competing, collaborating and conflicting claims by stakeholders which include government, universities, private industry, health professionals from biomedicine and CAM, and lay audiences. Reasons for the predominance of risk as a discursive construct in news reports about HM are multi-layered, and involve a complex interactivity between multiple factors such as news culture and news production processes, temporal boundaries, opportunity, sources and competing claimsmakers, as well as the broader sociocultural and political world in which HM is ambiguously placed, hovering at the edge of the marginalised, as well as the very threshold of mainstream healthcare.

This research is the first of its kind to consider risk and other representations in relation to HM discourse in Australian biomedical media, and mainstream news reportage. My interpretation of the findings demonstrates how and why such representations contribute to the construction of HM risk, a discourse that may influence HM usage by lay people, its acceptance by the mainstream health professions and finding a place for HM in the healthcare system, and the formulation of public policy.