The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom released a report a couple of weeks ago called What’s your poison? A special report on alcohol in the media.

While media coverage can potentially convey valuable health information, it can also create a lot of confusion. The NHS has a service called Behind the Headlines which provides an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news.

In this report, the Behind the Headlines team takes a closer look at alcohol and the media. They look at key messages from studies published between July 2007 and July 2011  (242 news reports in total) and explore why they aren’t always reported accurately.

They found a broad mix of topics on alcohol and health covered. Cardiovascular health accounted for 23% of the stories. Alcohol in pregnancy represented 15% of news stories, the relationship between alcohol and cancer was 12% and whether alcohol can help you live longer was 8%.

In the case of alcohol and pregnancy, it appears that this topic is prone to more contradictory messaging. The report explores how methodological differences in research studies result in disparate findings and how this translates into headlines. It also attempts to answer the question “What should women believe?”

The report is easy to read with a mix of media analysis and clear health information. It can be downloaded from the NHS website here.

Currently, UK guidelines on alcohol and pregnancy are:

The Department of Health recommends that you avoid drinking alcohol if you’re pregnant.

You should also avoid drinking alcohol if you’re trying for a baby or planning to do so, as many women don’t realise they’re pregnant until some weeks into their pregnancy.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises women who are pregnant to avoid alcohol in the first three months in particular, because of the increased risk of miscarriage.

If you do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to your unborn baby, you should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week. You should not get drunk and avoid binge drinking. For women, binge drinking means drinking more than six units of alcohol a day.

Read more: recent academic studies on FASD in the media

Connolly-Ahern, C. and Broadway, S.C. (2008). “To Booze or Not to Booze?” Newspaper Coverage of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Science Communication, 29: 362-385, doi:10.1177/1075547007313031

Lowe, P., Lee, E., and Yardley, L. (2010). Under the Influence? The Construction of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in UK Newspapers. Sociological Research Online, 15(4): 2.