The report, which appeared with the headline “Surge in babies addicted to drugs,” offered scant hard data and over-the-top word choice, not unlike news accounts of the supposed crack baby epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the crack baby scare “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research.” It turned out to be, as the New York Times put it in 2009, “the epidemic that wasn’t.”
The USA Today article opened with alarming-sounding news that medical authorities “are witnessing explosive growth in the number of newborn babies hooked on prescription painkillers, innocent victims of their mothers’ addictions.
“The trend,” the newspaper declared, “reflects how deeply rooted abuse of powerful narcotics, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, has become.”
To support the claim of “explosive growth,” USA Today turned to a lawyer-politician, the Florida attorney general, who was quoted as saying:
“I’m scared to death this will become the crack-baby epidemic.”
Which, of course, proved mostly an epidemic of media hype.
It didn’t take long for the USA Today account to turn squishy, acknowledging in the fourth paragraph a lack of hard data on this “explosive” topic.
“National statistics on the number of babies who go through withdrawal are not available,” we’re told, “and states with the worst problems have only begun to collect data.”
So USA Today really doesn’t know whether, or just where, the “explosive growth” in drug-dependent newborns is taking place.
The article offered data from Florida, stating that “the number of babies with withdrawal syndrome soared from 354 in 2006 to 1,374 in 2010,” without explaining how the data were collected, or for how long. Or without saying how many children were born those years in Florida.
Lamely, the article stated:
“Scattered reports show the number of addicted newborns has doubled, tripled or more over the past decade.” Which hardly supports the assertion of “explosive growth” in addicted newborns.
Readers also were told of a range of symptoms that drug-hooked newborns exhibit: “They scream, twitch and vomit. They have trouble breathing and eating. They rub their noses with their fists so much their skin bleeds.”
It’s all evocative of the news media’s crack-baby hype, especially in what Jane Brody of the New York Times called “a wide spectrum of ill effects that can result from fetal exposure to cocaine.”
Those effects, Brody wrote in 1988, “include retarded growth in the womb and subtle neurological abnormalities, which may afflict a majority of exposed newborns. In more extreme cases, cocaine can cause loss of the small intestine and brain-damaging strokes. … The litany of threats to newborns is long and growing.”
Indeed, Brody declared, so powerful was the drug that “research suggests that a single cocaine ‘hit’ during pregnancy can cause lasting fetal damage.”
Which was an extraordinary overstatement.
The much-predicted social catastrophe of crack babies, I write in Getting It Wrong, “never materialized.”
Fears that American society “would be overwhelmed by a lost generation of crack-damaged misfits proved wildly exaggerated, a ‘grotesque media stereotype,’ in the words of Deborah A. Frank, one of the country’s leading authorities on prenatal drug exposure.”
I also note:
“The adverse effects that journalists so often attributed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to prenatal exposure to crack turned out to be associated with a variety of factors — such as use during pregnancy of tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana — as well as the quality of the newborn’s environment and the quality of the mother’s prenatal care.”
The crack-baby myth was buoyed, I write, by 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.”
Journalists pushed too hard on thin, preliminary, and sketchy data, and extrapolated rather extravagantly from small numbers of anecdotes.
It’s a pattern that tends to repeat itself, as journalists fail to take lessons from misreported drug scares of the past.
“What reporters need to do,” the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer has written, “is challenge their sources in criminal justice, medicine, drug treatment, legislatures, and the user community when they make assertions of fact.
“Among the great failings of the press corps during the crack panic was its enthusiastic endorsement of the trend of ‘crack babies.’ Experts of all stripes lectured the press about these infants, whose chances at normal, healthy lives had been destroyed because their mothers were habituated to cocaine or crack.
“It was all lies.”
None of this is intended to endorse, advocate, or excuse the misuse of prescription drugs.
It is, rather, to underscore and call out the easy temptations of drug-scare stories.
Recent and related:
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- NPR revisits ‘crack baby’ panic, ignores media role
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- Why they get it wrong
- Why history is badly taught, poorly learned
- Media myths, the comfort food of journalism
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘When I lost Cronkite’ — or ‘something to that effect’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘Q-and-A’