How not to report about meth.

Media criticism.
March 21 2006 6:57 PM

How Not To Report About Meth

The Washington Post shows the way.

Start your article with an anecdote, preferably one about a user who testifies about how methamphetamine destroyed his life. Toss out some statistics to indicate that meth use is growing, even if the squishy numbers don't prove anything. Avoid statistics that cut against your case. Use and reuse the words "problem" and "epidemic" without defining them. Quote law enforcement officers extensively, whether they know what they're talking about or not. Avoid drug history except to make inflammatory comparisons between meth and other drugs. Gather grave comments from public-health authorities but never talk to critics of the drug war who might add an unwanted layer of complexity to your story.

Finally, attach a sensationalistic headline, such as "The Next Crack Cocaine? As Meth Use Grows, Officials Fear Region Is Unprepared to Deal With It." That's what the Washington Post did on March 19 in a piece that landed on the front page of the Metro section.

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In the universe of poorly reported meth articles, "The Next Crack Cocaine?," by Amit R. Paley, is not the worst. Newsweektook that honor and retired it last summer. But like Newsweek, the Post embraces meth cliché, half truth, hyperbole, and broken logic at every opportunity.

Let's start with the hysterical headline, "The Next Crack Cocaine?" The article itself mentions crack twice but never explains what meth would have to become in order to become the next crack. I can only assume that the headline writers believe that meth is a drug so overpoweringly addictive and cheap that thousands upon thousands in the area will surrender to it after one hit and then waste their lives in devotion to it. Just like crack!

By this definition, was crack the first crack? No. Newsweek, which printed as much hyperbolic crack coverage in the 1980s as any publication, reassessed the dangers posed by the smokable form of cocaine in a Feb. 19, 1990, piece titled "A Dirty Drug Secret." Without acknowledging its own role in fomenting the crack panic, Newsweek stated:

Don't tell the kids, but there's a dirty little secret about crack: as with most other drugs, a lot of people use it without getting addicted. In their zeal to shield young people from the plague of drugs, the media and many drug educators have hyped the very real dangers of crack into a myth of instant and total addiction. … By the best estimate, at least 2.4 million Americans have tried crack, but contrary to the myth, less than half a million now use it once a month or more. And even among the current users, there are almost surely more occasional smokers than chronic abusers. As children in drug-using communities can see for themselves, the users show a wide range of drug symptoms, from total impairment to almost none.

Moving past meth's status as the new crack, we arrive at the Post story's subhead, which claims that "Meth Use" is growing, an assertion repeated several times in the article by the reporter, police, and health officials. Yet no supporting data are presented. In fact, the best national data about first-time users of methamphetamine are fairly flat.

The piece also makes a big deal of the number of meth-lab seizures in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. They've have risen "from close to zero in 2000 to more than 80 last year." But what is a seized lab? The article doesn't say. Seized drug laboratory conjures images of a large glassware, tube, and Bunsen burner apparatus sucking in raw chemicals at one end and spewing powders and pills out the other. But law enforcement traditionally defines any seized equipment or materials that could be use to make meth as a lab bust. So, some of the "more than 80" busts cited in the article could be of suitcase-sized labs from mom-and-pop operations that manufactured small amounts of meth from Sudafed for personal use and sold the overstock on the side. The article doesn't say. To allow anybody to speculate that these labs portend the "next crack" epidemic is ridiculous.

The piece features little additional hard data. Take, for example, Paley's sentence, "In Washington, health officials say 75 percent of patients in some clinics have abused the drug, a big increase from a few years ago." OK, what clinics? And how big of an increase is the big increase? "It's everywhere," says a D.C. police officer who commands the gay and lesbian liaison unit. What does "everywhere" mean? The story cites an increase in the number of addicts. Again, no supporting data are supplied. Meth use is growing "exponentially" in Maryland and Virginia, a law enforcement officer tells the paper, a claim it transcribes without challenge.

After so vigorously hyping an increase in meth use, the piece reverses field and states this brilliant truth: "Experts said one of the biggest problems in bringing attention to the meth problem in the area is the lack of reliable statistics on the number of users." So, if there are no reliable statistics, how can you argue an increase in use?

Richard Rawson, a UCLA researcher who has studied meth for two decades, tells Paley that emergency-room visits and patient admissions tend to lag five to seven years behind the emergence of the drug, and that observed use by gays and any lab seizures are good markers of a potential wave of use. Or, maybe not.

The easiest way to end a bad article like this is to return to the anecdotal user, whose life was destroyed by drugs. The Post obliges, reintroducing us to Jimmy Garza, who was arrested for meth possession, lost his freedom, lost his job at AOL, lost his two cars, was evicted from his "posh" home, and declared bankruptcy. "His primary mission is to tell his story so that people realize the dangers of meth," Paley writes.

As much as I am prepared to believe that a meth epidemic is gathering speed and will soon rush through the Washington metropolitan region like Hurricane Katrina on a rocket sled, Mr. Garza's drug confessional and the Post's sketchy reporting leave me as ignorant about the drug's local incidence and prevalence as I was before I opened the paper.

Addendum, March 22, 2:30 p.m.: Don't miss Angela Valdez's brilliant critique of the Oregonian's multi-part methamphetamine series in this week's Willamette Week.

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A friend recommends that I combine my obsessions with press coverage of methamphetamine and Judith Miller's reporting. What sort of monster that would breed? Send your ideas via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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