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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

More Media Mistakes on Women, Alcohol and Addiction

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The misguided media coverage of women, alcohol and other drugs continues to escalate. Recently, I wrote about how the drug czar's office misrepresented statistics to suggest that teenage girls now take more drugs than boys do.

Then, on the stats website, I explored how the Wall Street Journal made several misleading claims--one of which led to a correction-- in a front-page story about binge-drinking by women.

Thursday night, NBC Nightly News (3/2/06) jumped on the "women are becoming lushes and junkies," bandwagon with yet another problematic story.

The errors began with the introduction, which used statistics that are not comparable to each other to imply that more women misuse illegal drugs than alcohol. Campbell Brown introduced the segment by stating that "six million women abuse alcohol or are alcoholic" and "15 million use illicit and prescription drugs."

NBC is comparing female apple-addicts to female orange-eaters here. Not all users of illicit--let alone prescription--drugs are drug abusers or drug addicts. To make an accurate comparison, the network should have either cited the total number of women who drink alcohol (whether or not they have any kind of alcohol problem) and the total number of illicit and prescription drug users--or used the number of alcoholics and alcohol abusers and the comparable number for drugs, which is of drug abusers and drug addicts.

Interestingly, the segment included a quote from a drug treatment expert who noted how much of currently available addiction treatment is geared to men. Traditional treatment, she said, "is confrontational and there is a sense of tearing down a false sense of self." She claimed that women need "the opposite" approach to treatment, one aimed at building up their sense of self.

In fact, however, the research does not support the confrontational approach for men, either. Researchers like William Miller of the University of New Mexico have found that, as he described one study, the more the counselor confronts, the more the client drinks and similar results have been found with drugs. Confrontation has also been found to increase treatment dropout, amongst both men and women.

While women absolutely do need addiction care geared to their specific needs, men, too, need evidence-based treatment and we all need evidence-based news programs!

As I noted on stats, with regard to the Journal piece:

There's an almost prurient interest in reporting on drinking and drug use by young women -- a seeming desire to make increased drug abuse casualties a penalty for women's advancement in the workplace. If the numbers genuinely supported such a case, it would be one thing -- but it's quite another to try to make the facts fit the preconception.

The media seems unable to change its storyline of ever-increasing bad behavior by young people. It was forced to accept dropping crime rates -- but it will not abide the fact that today's youth, both male and female, are better behaved on almost every measure than their parents were. Good news may not be news -- but faking bad news is not the answer.