A new government survey finds meth use down. Where's the coverage?

Media criticism.
Jan. 31 2007 6:15 PM

About That Methedemic

A new government survey finds meth use down. So, where's the coverage?

In August 2005, when Newsweek  reported the spread of a national methamphetamine "epidemic" in a cover story, I wrote:

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.)

Methamphetamine Use 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.

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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.

Maybe my press colleagues blew the NSDUH press release off because it came out a Friday which, according to press lore, is the day the government and corporations dump news they don't want reported, because they know reporters are in a rush to get home and start their weekend. If this press fable is really true, a newspaper or Web site should create a "Friday Press Release" column for Saturday morning editions or Friday postings. (Note to Weisberg: Why doesn't Slate start a "Friday Press Release" column? But please don't assign it to me, because I go home early on Fridays.)

By design or accident, the press dropped the federal government's measurement of a decline in methamphetamine use down the memory hole. But still it's not too late for criminal-justice reporters, medicine reporters, and even culture reporters to bang on the NSDUH survey results. I'd even settle for an informed editorial, which shows how desperate I am.

Any takers?

Addendum, Feb. 2: Above, I wondered if it's only a press fable that bureaucrats use Friday press releases to "hide" inconvenient information. Indeed, it appears that they deliberately do so at the highest levels of government. Reader Theodore J. Sawchuck points to a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank this morning that quotes Cathie Martin, former Cheney communications director, testifying in the Libby trial that her office dumped bad news on Fridays when she worked for the vice president. From Milbank's column:

With a candor that is frowned upon at the White House, Martin explained the use of late-Friday statements. "Fewer people pay attention to it late on Friday," she said. "Fewer people pay attention when it's reported on Saturday."

******

If the New York Times finds itself short-staffed this Friday afternoon, I'll come over after I finish my shift at Slateand write the meth story for them. Send your meth surveys to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Disclosure: Slate and Newsweek are owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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