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AP v. USA Today: "PR-infested" Drugs Coverage Fails Readers

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It's not often that two news organizations provide perfect contrasts in how to cover -- and how not to cover -- drug-related surveys. But today, USA Today offers model coverage, and the AP offers a blueprint for what not to do in their reporting on the latest survey put out by Columbia's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), or as it might better be described, the "National Center for the Abuse of Statistical Analysis."

USA Today richly deserves praise for its story on CASA's claims that American schools are "drug infested," appropriately headlined, "Schools 'Infested' With Drugs? It Depends."

CASA's survey found that the percentage of high school students who say that drugs are used, kept or sold in their schools rose from 44% in 2002 to 61% in 2007. But as USAT's Sharon Jayson points out, the large federal surveys of students about drugs found declines in drug use during that period.

CASA surveyed just 659 high school students and 356 from middle school, while just one of the federal studies, Monitoring the Future, has a sample of 50,000.

Even a spokesperson for the Partnership for a Drug Free America, which usually
concurs with media drug hype, told USAT that kids tend to overestimate drug use by peers when surveyed as the CASA researchers did.

Many media outlets, perhaps noting the poor quality of the data, or fearful of having been burned by CASA's errors in the past, simply ignored the report.

But the AP picked it up as though CASA's word was gospel. It parroted CASA's results with no context and not even a single quote from an outside expert. Following CASA's lead, it characterized parents' attitude as one of "despair and denial," because most were far more worried about their teens sexual behavior and about the possibility that their children would drive drunk than they were about teen marijuana use.

In reality, this is an accurate risk assessment: teen sex and drunk driving are far more likely to have negative health consequences than teen marijuana use. There has never been a reported marijuana overdose death, for example, but drunk driving killed nearly more than 15,000 people in 2006 alone.

Similarly, the study found that 60% of parents of teens in schools where drug use was common said that having a drug free school was an "unrealistic" goal. The AP and CASA see this as denial and despair; but given the statistics on teen drug use over the last 50 years, could it be that it's CASA and the media who are "in denial" about what goals are realistic, and not these parents?

This is lazy reporting at its worst: readers would be better served by simply reading CASA's press release. At least they would know it comes from an organization with an agenda, rather than a news agency pretending to be objective.

If reporters are going to earn their keep, they need to do more than re-write press releases, and when they do so, as the USAT story demonstrates, they genuinely help people sort through competing claims. But if they are just going to do PR agents' jobs for interest groups, journalism will rightly become another job category lost to history.

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