Bankrupcy of Advocacy Journalism

I have never been one to wade much into the whole "media bias" issue.  Whenever I have discussed it, my main point of view is that journalists of whatever political stripe tend to suspend necessary skepticism when writing about an issue they are really passionate about.  That is why advocacy journalism can yield such crap.  I have never once dug into a strong advocacy journalism piece and not found any number of "facts" to be without attribution and often to not even make any sense.

Most people have now heard the origins of the now-famous "million homeless families" non-statistic, which was reprinted over and over but has been admitted to have been just made up by a leading homeless advocate.  And lets not forget Mary Mapes, who proudly describes herself as an advocacy journalist, and her now famous use of forgeries in her Bush-National Guard reports, leading to the classic "Fake but Accurate" meme.  People who believe in a cause, whether it be homelessness or GWB's fundamental corruption, suspend skepticism for "facts" and "statistics" that fit their point of view on the subject.  Usually they will shrug off challenges to the fact, saying "well, it may not be exactly X but we know the problem is a really big number."  In other words, fake but accurate.

Angela Valdez has a nice analysis of one such advocacy journalism effort, in this case the Oregonian's over-one-hundred part series on the "meth epidemic".  For example, she writes:

On Feb. 20 of this year, columnist S. Renee Mitchell wrote, without
offering data to back up her claim: "The number of meth addicts"”and the
crimes they commit to support their habits"”is exploding."....

In fact, meth use during the past four years has either declined or
stayed flat, according to two major national drug-use studies. The
National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that meth use did not
increase at all from 2002 (two years before The Oregonian
started its carpet-bombing coverage) through 2004, the last year for
which there is data. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future
Study, which examines drug use among youth, actually shows a decline in meth use among high-school students from 1999 to 2005....

Despite The Oregonian's reliance on this figure, there is no good evidence that meth causes 85 percent of the property crimes in Oregon.

Portland State University criminology professor Kris Henning
says the number just doesn't make sense. Department chair Annette Jolin
says the unsupportable statistic has become "something of a joke"among
statistical researchers in the department.

For one thing, Oregon property crimes are much lower than they
were 10 or even 20 years ago, the time period of the supposed meth
"epidemic."

"If meth causes property offenses, and meth use has gone up,"
Henning says, "then property offenses should have gone up. And they
haven't. It's either that, or all the people who commit property crimes
have disappeared and been replaced by a small number of meth users."

I looked at the silliness of meth hysteria statistics here.  But my point is that this is not a meth issue - this is an advocacy journalism issue.  You could write the same article challenging any number of articles in the paper every day.

PS-  But on the subject of meth, I will make one prediction:  I predict that the meth hysteria will do more to create legislation and police practices that will undermine civil liberties than did 9/11.  In fact, much of the Patriot Act is already used more to fight the drug war than to fight terrorism.

  • eddie

    The over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine (the active ingredient in Sudafed and many others) has increasingly come under restriction because it can be used as a precursor in making meth.

    Last week I heard a radio commercial for some sinus medicine that has been reformulated to not use pseudoephedrine. The commercial touted this as "helping to reduce violent crime" because of the connection between pseudoephedrine and meth labs. It basically implied that your duty as a patriotic citizen was to buy this sinus medicine instead of others in order to keep your neighbors from being raped by the meth lab scum. I am only slightly exaggerating the tone of the commercial.

    Here's their press release about it (and remember that it's a press release, i.e. written by a company or organization to push their particular ideas and then usually recycled into "news" without examination by uncritical media looking to fill page counts without doing any hard work): http://sev.prnewswire.com/health-care-hospitals/20051207/NYW01007122005-1.html

  • Bob Smith

    The real joke about pseudoephedrine is that it's used as a precursor for meth only in very, very small batches, hardly enough to matter. The big-time industrial producers of meth in Mexico don't steal a few bottles of Sudafed, they have entire factories dedicated to meth production. Cracking down on Sudafed purchases only serves to take business from small local producers and give it to the big cartels, hardly an improvement in drug control policy.