Meth Scare Stories

Steve sent me a link to the George Mason University’s STATS site which “monitors the media to expose the abuse of science and statistics before people are misled and public policy is distorted”. They issue an annual list of stories that used misleading or false information, the Dubious Data Awards. Their top story for 2005 was Meth Mania.


STATS started to look at media coverage of crystal meth in 2003, after Rolling Stone published a piece called “Plague in the Heartland” (1/23/03). STATS said that Rolling Stone was hooked on cliche, and recommended an article in Reason, Amphetimine Psychosis. The Rolling Stone piece has been reproduced here at the Media Awarness Project, here, and it was reproduced with several other news stories about crystal meth in January 2003 in an archive at the pro-drug Psychedelic Library site.
STATS looked at media coverage of meth again in 2005. The New York Times published a front page story about meth labs and meth addiction on February 23, 2005, which attracted a critique by STATS because the Times used anecdotal rather than statistical evidence: Scare quotes rather than studies make page one. On February 6, the Times published a personal story by David Sheff, about his 19 year old son’s meth addiction, My Addicted Son. (Copies reproduced here and here). STATS thought the story was flawed – NYT’s bleak picture of addiction recovery not supported by data.
STATS criticized a March 2005 segment of the Today show and in a story called The Media’s Meth Mania, it criticized an article published in the August 8, 2005 issue of Newsweek Magazine. The Newsweek story also drew criticism in Slate, in a story called This is your Magazine on Drugs. Slate picked up on Newsweek’s coverage of the dental side effects of meth use – meth mouth – and suggested a NY Times story was less sensational.
There are some sites that collate stories about drugs, although some appear to have an interest in “drug policy reform”. For instance the Media Awareness Project has a useful running index of stories about methamphetimines. (The default search bring up the last 200 stories but the search can be set for a specific range of dates). The stories on that site give a better idea of what local and regional newspapers have been reporting.
This puts the Winnipeg Free Press’s discovery of Crystal Meth in a different perspective. In January 2006 The Free Press wrote the same stories that appeared in papers in the Pacific Northwest, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Vancouver in the period from January to June of 2003, and used some of the same pictures that have been used in many American papers, and in Newsweek. There are stories from Arkansas, published in 2001, about legislation restricting the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products. It puts the confidence of law enforcement agencies that they can contain the problem and the confidence of educators and counsellors that they can help people make better choices in a different perspective too.
STATS’s main criticism of the media is inaccuracy. Ironically, STATS is not that good about the use of statistics in this story. They fault the NY Times for not checking stats in reporting an upsurge in meth use in 2005, but they cite 2003 statistics, and they don’t try to discuss what the statistics mean. The statistics relate to the percentage of the population that has tried meth, which appears to be consistently low. They don’t seem to measure the number of people that become addicted, and become a chronic problem for law enforcement agencies and health and social service agencies. The statistics don’t seem to accurately reflect the real experience of people living in the Pacific Northwest, the northern Plains and Western Canada.
Some of the stories – particularly the one in Slate – discuss issues that the big stories in the American national media did not discuss. Amphetimine addiction isn’t new, and it has run in waves. The drug become fashionable, and the addiction is intense, but the addiction burns itself out. David Sheff’s story discussed, in a personal way, the false claims made by psychologists and addictions counsellors. The truth as anyone in the field will tell a parent, is “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” But there are many psychologists and counsellors who try to sell parents on the idea that the right treatement – usually based on the idea that there is something wrong with the parents, the family and the environment – may undo the cause, control the situation and cure the addiction. STATS suggested that he sensationalized hopelessness. However STATS overrated the effectiveness of drug treatment programs. The truth seems to be that amphetimine addiction tends to burn out. Other addictions respond to group therapy – to the influence of peers acting together, rather than to analysis of past events.
STATS and Slate argue that the stories are “sensational”. They seem to mean that the problem is being exagerrated and that the public is being fed information that supports the government policy known as the war on drugs. Other players with different agendas suggest that the media is being manipulated by elites, and they try to get their agenda covered. Their ideas often aren’t covered by the regular media. The countercultural media sees this as an abuse of power by the regular media, or at least evidence that the regular media is locked into a narrow idea of what constitutes valid news and information.
The drug policy reform people tend to see a conspiracy between law enforcement and the media to sensationalize the bad effects of drugs. They tend to blame the government’s war on drugs for the damage done to drug users, their families and the victims of their crimes by drug dealers. The STATS site doesn’t seem to have a particular perspective on drugs. The story in Slate suggested that the American government’s war on drugs was responsible for crime by driving the manufacturing and sale of drugs into the criminal underworld. I am not sympathetic to that perspective. The police do tend to use the media to demand more resources for law enforcement and the media can’t resist a drug scare story, but that doesn’t mean the information about drug abuse and addiction shouldn’t be in the news.
The opponents of the war on drugs make false comparisions between the modern war on drugs and the Prohibition of alcohol in North America. While alcohol addiction and alcohol abuse are serious issues, the manufacturing and consumption of alcohol products was deeply entrenched in our culture, there were established patterns of social use, there was an established market and there was an established industry before Prohibition. Alcohol is a relatively mild drug, and its uses and abuses were well understood and relatively well controlled. Prohibition was a social experiment in improving people. Restricting the manufacturing and sale of new drugs brings a different set of considerations into play. The public strategies of trying to “educate” people into avoiding drugs and a law enforcement war on drugs are not working that well, but that doesn’t mean that mass drug use should be legalized and promoted.
The media believe that people won’t read a story that isn’t dramatic, which leads to journalists writing dramatic, sensational and sentimental stories to promote their careers, and media companies competing to sell the classiest, most tasteful news drama. We can take sensationalism and drama for granted. The problem is that the stories failed to provide a clear historical and social perspective, and were not addressed to people living with addicts and drugs.
News stories should be useful to citizens, informing them about issues that affect their private choices and their lives as citizens. The media, selling their product to a mass audience, doesn’t seem to be able to provide useful information about drugs to the people most likely to use them. The media aims its stories at the audience its advertisers want to reach. Teens and young adults, as a group, are disinterested in the regular news. They make their choices based on different information and influences. Drug scare stories make parents paranoid, but they don’t help parents to help their children avoid drugs. The media also seems to be two faced about drugs and culture. It condemns the consumption of drugs and the drug trade, but it generally promotes prevailing cultural values. And the prevailing cultural values are that people should be free to experience and consume what they want, without shame and without facing social and moral judgment.
The news media doesn’t do a good job explaining the reasons that people take different drugs, or in helping parents and educators help their children. In fact they tell stories within patterns – they use stereotypes of different people and issues. Addicts are weak, and victimized by their addictions. Trafficking is a law enforcement problem. Treatment and recovery are quasi-political social policy problems. Everyone is surprized that people in the richest countries in the history of the world are so bored, unhappy, alienated and spiritually empty that they take dangerous, addictive, consciousness-altering drugs. When it happens, parents and families are implicitly blamed for traumatizing the children, or for not protecting them from bullies, or for failing to “know” their kids, or for failing to teach them the skills of judgment.
The use of stereotypes and superficial information within supposedly neutral journalism contributes to a sense of detachment. The news stories tend to happen to other people. The media report on isolated events and short term trends as if everything is a crisis. After innumerable false scares, the public becomes suspicious about media claims and develops a sense of hopelessness. The media reinforces the idea that the only route to happiness is wealth and personal security, and trying to live in a perpetual happy moment.

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