The government and the press are addicted.
by Jack Shafer
The press goes mad for meth.
The myth of the adversary press holds that reporters assume that every government statement contains at least one flagrant lie, and that before disseminating the information the press must expunge or otherwise expose the government propaganda.
Nowhere does the myth of the adversary press break down more often than on the illicit-drug beat, where most government press releases receive only a gentle rewrite before publication. Today's offender, the Associated Press, took the handoff from a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration March 1 press release to produce a piece of junk journalism about an explosive increase of methamphetamine users in drug treatment.
The SAMHSA-AP story has gotten wide play, with the Web sites of 307 news outlets picking up a version ("Sharp Rise in People Seeking Meth Treatment, Report Finds"), according to a Friday morning Google News search. At least four top newspapers—the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, and Newsday—published some form of the wire service's account.
Citing SAMHSA, the AP reports that the number of meth users admitted to substance-abuse programs had quadrupled between 1993 and 2003. There were 28,000 admissions for meth or amphetamines in 1993 (about 2 percent of 1.6 million admissions nationally) and almost 136,000 admissions in 2003 (more than 7 percent of the total 1.8 million admissions).
Neither the AP nor SAMHSA explains why treatment numbers are up, up, up. A SAMHSA official indicates to the AP that the addictiveness of meth is to blame, not an increase in prevalence; the AP reporter cites unnamed experts to say meth use is "epidemic in some states," indicating that an increase in use might be behind more users seeking help.
A cursory look at the SAMHSA report points to another reason why additional meth users are "seeking" treatment: coercion. If you read all the way to the bottom of the SAMHSA report and consult the endnotes, you learn that changes in drug law have helped boost meth-therapy admissions. Under "referral" programs, some jurisdictions can now divert nonviolent meth offenders from prison and into substance-abuse programs. Part of the thinking here is that drug abuse is a public health problem, not a criminal justice one. Another is that it's cheaper to "treat" drug users than to incarcerate them. California, which has one of the highest rates of meth-therapy admissions, at 212 per 100,000 people, passed its referral law in 2000.
The SAMHSA report notes that the percentage of meth admissions referred by the criminal justice system rose from 36 percent to 51 percent between 1993 and 2003. Meanwhile, the percentage of meth users referring themselves to therapy dropped from 35 percent to 25 percent. So to say that every meth user in the SAMHSA total is "seeking" treatment as opposed to "avoiding" prison requires an Orwellian sense of the language. Who wouldn't accept therapy instead of a term in a modern U.S. prison?
One way to look at the SAMHSA data is that the number of people in treatment is increasing because the criminal justice system is feeding them a huge number of nonviolent offenders. Had the AP reporter been wearing his thinking cap when he received the SAMHSA handout, he could have written this story:
Drug Arrests Fuel Drug Treatment
WASHINGTON—A new government report today showed that reducing the number of methamphetamine drug arrests would sharply reduce the number of people in drug abuse treatment. …
None of this is to say that methamphetamine use never causes social problems, or even to disprove the belief held by many in government and the press that methamphetamine use is increasing. (Reason's Jacob Sullum does some persuasive math on the user numbers here and here.) But the AP's performance reminds us that journalists cheat their readers when reporting data-intensive stories unless they:
1) Understand that press releases are not studies.
2) Look at the actual data, not the data cherry-picked to make the press releases' point.
3) Find the right data.
4) Focus on what matters, not what they've been told to focus on.
5) Seek confirmatory or contradictory studies.
6) Mind their p's and n's (significance and sample size).
7) Consult the study's own explanation of what the limits are to its findings.
8) And finally, when a study—or a press release—makes extraordinary claims, demand extraordinary proof.
For all its failings, the AP deserves a commendation for hinting that the SAMHSA study's release might have been politically motivated. The full version of the AP story noted that the government "report was released hours before the Senate passed legislation to combat meth by limiting sales of cold medicines used to make the illegal drug."
Indeed, the March 1 SAMHSA report that AP and so many news organizations made a big deal about merely reheats data originally released in November 2005 (see this large PDF file). The SAMHSA press release acknowledges as much when it notes, "These findings are part of a report released today … from continued analysis of the 2003 Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS)."
Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.
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