About That Methedemic
A new government survey finds meth use down. So, where's the coverage?
The leading indicator that a national trend has peaked and has begun its downward trajectory is often its appearance on the cover of one of the newsweeklies.
Last Friday, Jan. 26, the federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health released results from a survey that showed meth use had "declined overall between 2002 and 2005" and that the number of "initiates"— people using the drug for the first time in the 12 months before the survey—had "remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2004, but decreased between 2004 and 2005." (See the chart below for the NSDUH chart.)
In other words, meth use was declining just as Newsweek started clawing itself bloody about the growing trend.
Was I prescient or just lucky?
I'd say "prescient."
One would guess that a decline in use and new use would be considered news—good news, even. One would imagine that after publishing and broadcasting a steady stream of stories about the unstoppable meth ascendance that editors would have been eager to share the government's latest findings with readers. Alas, I can't find a single news story or television transcript in Nexis that reports the NSDUH measured meth decline. The only Nexis hit is of the US Fed News' publication of the agency's press release.
Do we draw from this that reports of increased drug use are news, but reports of decreased drug use are not? We do, and we have for a long, long time. As long as I'm taking victory laps, let me quote my July 21, 2006, column, "Pfft Goes the Methedemic":
An iron law of journalism dictates that news of increased drug use goes onto Page One and at the top of broadcasts, but news of decreased drug use must be buried or ignored.
A couple of caveats about the NSDUH survey. Measuring drug use is difficult because 1) drug users are considered criminals, and 2) law-breakers tend not to want to confess their crimes in surveys. That said, the NSDUH survey has relied on a consistent methodology since 2002, "administering questionnaires to a representative sample of the population through face-to-face interviews at their place of residence." It may not be a perfect survey, but it's the survey we've got, and it's one of the surveys the press turns to when it's time to herald the increase in drug use.