Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Myth making and the news: Crack babies

Drug stories are good stories — prize winners, in fact. In the news business stories on drug abuse are seen as high grade news ore ready for mining. Although I worked for a newspaper, my background was not in journalism but in art; I saw these stories as a motherlode of fool's gold.

From my art school days, I had known far too many talented people who both took drugs and enjoyed exceedingly successful lives — far more successful than the media folk peddling the drug abuse scare stories. This is not to say that abusing drugs is smart or even O.K. Abusing drugs is stupid, just as abusing alcohol is stupid, but both stories are complex. Fed to readers and television audiences in small, shallow news bites make for a pretty meager meal.

It is difficult when a story is popular, when the story is making the rounds of newspapers and television news programs, to see that the story is first rate bunkum: Myth making at its finest.

Retrospect can add clarity. Case in point: The crack baby scare. The New York Times, as part of its Retro Report series, has posted a video examining the now debunked crack baby scare. The NYT is not alone. Heck, exposing the myth has become a new "in" story.

But, let's make one thing clear: Erroneous news stories do cause harm. As FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) points out,

"The saddest part: Early on, researchers recognized that the social stigma attached to being identified as a 'crack baby' could far outweigh any biological impact." In some documented cases, children with easily corrected health problems unrelated to drug abuse were left to suffer, written off as "crack babies."

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