Why Does Drug Reporting Suck?
Whenever I fall into a funk over the press corps' abysmal coverage of illicit drugs, I console myself with the knowledge that, as awful as the coverage is, it's always been that way. Then, to confirm my cynical sentiments, I pull out a monograph from 1974 titled "Major Newspaper Coverage of Drug Issues" from the drug section of my library and reread it.
Robert P. Bomboy wrote the monograph for the Drug Abuse Council, a 1970s project of the liberal Ford Foundation that assessed the impact of illicit drugs and made policy recommendations. Bomboy found drug coverage to be moralistic in conception, gullible in sourcing, and formulaic in execution.
"Today's headlines and news stories on drug abuse often echo those found in newspaper stories of the thirties, when Harry J. Anslinger, the stern and energetic foe of drug use, took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics," writes Bomboy. Anslinger was an original exponent of the "reefer madness" school of drug education. "Hemp Around Their Necks," a chapter from his 1961 book The Story of the Narcotic Gangs, provides a taste of his rhetorical style, one that survives in today's coverage of illicit drug use, especially methamphetamine use.
Bomboy interviewed reporters and editors across the country during his research and came up with these drug-coverage axioms that are truer today than they were in 1974:
A great deal of drug reporting on [sic] major newspapers reflects ignorance, fear and false preconceptions.
Nothing that happens to a journalist will shake him of his false ideas about drugs and drug users when he begins his reporting, Bomboy asserts. "His editors and colleagues, having the same mental picture, are not likely to challenge his story," he writes. "So the old myths are perpetuated in the public's mind."
Newspapers continue to be most strongly interested in the sensational or dramatic aspects of the drug abuse story.
For confirmation, please see the recent press treatment of "meth mouth."
Acting out of a lack of interest at best, class bias, racism and fear at worst, newsmen take pains to disassociate themselves from addicts.
"Newsmen still too easily accept conceptions of drug abusers as dope fiends, 'crazies,' uncontrollable animals, the leading contributors to urban crime, objects of fear and loathing," he writes.