W. Joseph Campbell

‘Pharm patries’ and the howler-correction of the month

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on March 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

The once-great Chicago Tribune offered up the howler-correction of the month the other day, saying this about a story it published nearly four months ago:

“In a Nov. 22 article about teenagers who abuse prescription drugs, a reference to ‘pharm parties‘ being a craze among teens did not sufficiently support that assertion.”

Huh?

That, no doubt, was the reaction of many people who read and puzzled over that correction: It befuddled more than it clarified.

Here’s what the Tribune said about “pharm parties” back in the fall:

“‘Pharm parties’ are a disturbing craze in which teens steal prescription medicine from home, take the pills to a gathering, and dump the load into a bowl. The partygoers then pop the pills and wait for a reaction.”

The “pharm party” meme is a media-driven myth, one of remarkable tenacity. The myth’s most energetic debunker, Jack Shafer of slate.com, has traced the meme to 1966, when, he says, “pharm parties” were known as “fruit salad parties.”

“There are at least two basic problems with the pharm-party scenario reported in the press,” Shafer has written.

“To begin with, if you were a young drug fiend and stole potent drugs, why would you deposit them in a communal bowl if there was a good chance that when your turn came to draw a drug at random, you might get an antihistamine? And second, I’ve yet to read a story in which a journalist actually attends such a gathering, interviews a participant, or cites a police report alleging such behavior.”

More recently, Shafer deliciously excoriated the San Francisco Chronicle for its front-page report a week ago about “pharm parties,” which declared–on the basis of few if any statistics–that  “the phenomenon is getting worse.”

The headline over Shafer’s column described the Chronicle account as “the worst ‘pharm party’ story ever.”

He pointed out:

“To my knowledge, no journalist has ever witnessed such random consumption of drugs by young people in a party setting, yet the story continues to get major play as if these affairs are common.”

So why has the “pharm party” myth demonstrated such tenacty? Why does it seem to defy the most thorough of debunkings?

An important factor, no doubt, is stereotyping–a ready willingness to believe that teens readily indulge in mindlessly dangerous conduct.

To that end, a graduate student of mine recently called attention to passage in 1988 film Heathers in which the protagonist, J.D., says:

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.”

Like many media-driven myths–including those addressed and debunked in my forthcoming book Getting It Wrong–the “pharm party” meme is a delicious tale. Like the dubious story about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain, it’s just too good not to be true.

Or retold.

(Hearst’s famous vow has achieved status as an all-purpose anecdote, one useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.)

So what to do about these nasty and persistent media myths?

I believe that pounding away at them–directing attention to them whenever they arise– is the only effective way to address them and thus begin to alter the narrative.

The Tribune‘s correction suggests that Shafer’s debunking is having an effect.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center, moreover, has demonstrated that some myths can be curbed or contained. Over the past 10 years, Phildelphia-based Annenberg Center has endeavored to debunk the notion that suicides rise during the year-end holidays.

They don’t.

The Annenberg Center hasn’t buried this media myth. But to its credit, it has begun to tame it.

WJC

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  1. [...] while the topic is not considered in Getting It Wrong, I also mention the “pharm parties” myth, in which young people are said to take pills of any kind from their parents’ [...]

  2. [...] An interesting look at the myth of ‘Pharm Parties’ and teenagers. [...]

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