W. Joseph Campbell

NPR revisits ‘crack baby’ panic, ignores media role

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Washington Post on May 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

NPR’s “Tell Me More” program yesterday became the latest national news outlet to revisit the “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s, and pronounce it all had been overblown.

As in the recent Washington Post retrospective about “crack babies,” NPR failed to confront the news media’s central role in promoting and spreading what one leading researcher has called a “fantasy panic.”

Washington Post, 1989

That turn of phrase inspired the title of the chapter about “crack babies” in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book that confronts and debunks 10 media-driven myths.

Getting It Wrong is being published this summer by University of California Press.

The crack-baby myth centers around the notion that women who took cocaine during pregnancy would give birth to children so mentally and physically deficient that they would constitute a helpless, dependent “bio-underclass,” as syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer put it in 1989.

In Getting It Wrong,  I call attention “to the risks of anecdote-driven reporting, which characterized news coverage of the crack baby phenomenon.

“Disturbing images and heart-wrenching descriptions of helpless newborns supposedly damaged by their mothers’ toxic indulgence were,” I write, “frequent and irresistible elements of the coverage. Anecdotes were fuel for a powerful but misleading storyline.”

Yesterday’s “Tell Me More” segment on “crack babies” overlooked all that, referring vaguely to “all manner of pronouncements about how children who were exposed to crack in utero were destined to a life of physical and mental disability.”

The program’s description at the “Tell Me More” online site ignored the news coverage, saying instead that “the nation’s health specialists panicked over the growing number of so-called ‘crack babies’—children exposed to crack cocaine in utero. These children were said to be doomed to lives of physical and mental disability.”

The panic, though, was largely media-driven, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

The “Tell Me More” segment–which noted that “children who [had been] exposed to crack cocaine before birth are proving these worst case scenarios were all wrong”–did include an intriguing, media-related passage.

That came late in the show, when Dr. Carl Bell, a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, spoke of “media epidemiology.”

He said:

“I think it’s important for society to move away from what I refer to as media epidemiology and media hypotheses and making all these generalizations about things because frequently they’re flat out wrong, as it shows.”

I asked Bell by email to elaborate on “media epidemiology.”

He replied, stating:

“‘Media epidemiology’ is a term I began using about two years ago to describe how the public gets its understanding about epidemiology of various public health issues from the media, which of course is the absolutely wrong place to get such information as the media does not report on the common but on the uncommon which is defined as news.

“For example, ten years ago the homicide rates in Chicago were 1,000 but because of a lot of work done in public health in the city the homicide rates are down to 500, but the media keeps referring to the ‘homicide epidemic’ in Chicago; thereby misleading the public with their ‘media epidemiology.'”

It, too, is’ an interesting turn-of-phrase–and may help explain why the news media sometimes get it wrong in reporting on issues of science and public health.

WJC

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