Why Does Drug Reporting Suck?
Reporters too seldom attempt to cross-check official information with sources on the street.
And if they do interview street sources, it's generally to confirm what the official sources said in the first place.
Major newspapers often don't have "drug beats."
At many papers, general-assignment reporters write the stories and fail to develop any expertise or alternative sourcing that would improve their pieces.
Drug abuse coverage is warped by regional points of view.
To put the contemporary spin on this, the regional press tends to believe that the entire nation must be captive of a meth epidemic because they've observed meth in their own back yards. But even the federal drug warriors don't fall for this line. About 18 months ago, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy ventured: "[A]ccording to the National Drug Intelligence Center, in some areas of this country, methamphetamine use and production is not classified as a significant problem. Yet in other regions, it is a significant threat."
Bomboy's critique can't be universally applied. Obviously, not every reporter is a dupe of the "just say no" crowd. The Oregonian, for example, has produced a methamphetamine series over the last nine months that doesn't rely on meth-mouth distortions. (In fact, a Nexis search indicates that the newspaper has never published the phrase.) While I don't agree with the paper's assumption that meth can be eliminated by locking up the chemical precursors used by clandestine labs to manufacture methamphetamine, there's no denying the Oregonian's journalistic accomplishment. The editors better build their trophy case for all the awards they'll win.
And as long as we're handing out drug-coverage awards, how about one for Alec MacGillis of the Baltimore Sun? In last Sunday's (Aug. 7) edition, he vigorously debunked the estimate of "60,000 addicts" in Baltimore, which had become a national object of faith.
But such skeptical, substantive reporting remains rare. The majority of journalists in 1974 had a good excuse for producing hysterical and hackneyed crap: Drugs were a thousand leagues outside their comfort zone. Your average pressman had never met a heroin user, had never smoked marijuana, and mistakenly believed that some college kids on LSD had gone blind from looking at the sun.
But today's top editors are all young enough—or old enough, depending on how you look at it—to have observed illicit drug use firsthand, and I'd wager that most have partaken of recreational drugs at some point in their lives.They know that police officers exaggerate drug menaces, that not every drug user turns into Charles Manson, and that not all drug use constitutes drug abuse. Such personal familiarity with drug lore and legend should have better prepared them to cover the subject.
What's their excuse?