W. Joseph Campbell

Skirting the media’s role in the ‘crack baby’ scare

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm

The Washington Post today revisits the “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s and reports that “in the two decades that have passed since … these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories–and for the most part, they are tales of success.”

The Post notes that “a lot of misinformation surfaced” about the “crack baby” phenomenon, and cites an often-quoted column by Charles Krauthammer who in 1989 wrote:

Washington Post, August 1989

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

(Although the Post article doesn’t mention it, Krauthammer also wrote in that column: “The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.”)

Otherwise, the Post‘s report steered well clear of considering the news media’s central role in spreading “misinformation” about “crack babies,” a topic is explored in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

The scare, I write, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

I further note:

“To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free, and certainly neither prudent nor sensible.”

However, I add, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping: Newborns exposed to crack during pregnancy tend to be smaller in birth weight, in length, and in head circumference. Some research suggested that mild cognitive deficiencies, such as difficulties in concentrating on tasks at hand, might be attributable to prenatal cocaine exposure, especially as cognitive demands on children intensify as they grow older.

“But biomedical research has found nothing akin to a ‘bio-underclass,’” that Krauthammer and others warned about some 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I write in Getting It Wrong, because doing so “allows insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research, and to reach for certainty and definitiveness that are not often found in preliminary findings.

“The tendency of journalists to push hard on tentative data has been apparent in coverage of more recent drug scares, notably that of methamphetamine in 2004 and 2005.”

The Post‘s report today was the latest in what, in effect, has been an intermittent series in leading newspapers to revisit the “crack baby” scare and find it to have been exaggerated.

In a lengthy article published 15 months ago, the New York Times called the scare “the epidemic that wasn’t.” A columnist for the New York Daily News acknowledged in 2004 that “we probably overreacted with forecasts of harm to so-called ‘crack babies.’”

And more than 12 years ago, the Post carried a story similar to today’s. That article appeared on page Z10, beneath the headline: “‘Crack Baby’ Fears May Have Been Overstated.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The news media’s retreat or rollback on crack babies was neither as extensive nor as prominent as the dramatic and ominous reports about the scourge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

I quote the alternative magazine, Mother Jones, which pointed out in 1995:

“The publicity blitz that spread the crack-baby myth has not been matched by an attempt to unmake the myth—and many, many people still believe in it.”

The term “crack babies” remains firmly in circulation; it is invoked casually and idiomatically, as something of a cliché.

WJC

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