Homelessness, Vaping and Fentanyl: Three More Examples of Bad Media Coverage of Drugs

    Inaccurate and biased media coverage of drugs, drug use, and harm reduction was in full swing over this past weekend. Many have noted the role of the news media in perpetuating, and sometimes explicitly endorsing, the War on Drugs. This is not going to end soon. In different ways, the three articles below disparage drug users, discredit harm reductionists, and make damaging alarmist claims.

     

    “Life on the Dirtiest Block In San Francisco,” The New York Times

    On Monday, the New York Times ran an article titled, “Life on the Dirtiest Block In San Francisco,” that gawked at people who are houseless and use drugs on a particular block in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district—without interviewing one of them.

    Foreshadowed by the title’s use of “dirtiest,” the writer, Thomas Fuller, pegs demeaning language to the marginalized people inhabiting the Tenderloin, quite literally dehumanizing them. Quoting a resident of the neighborhood who describes the block as the “land of the living dead,” Fuller unconsciously mirrors that language by recounting, “At night bodies line the sidewalks.” Per this description, people who spend time on streets because they are excluded from shelter and other resources are not people; rather, they are reduced to the status of objects amongst the block’s  “scene of detritus.”

    Just as problematic are the choices made about whose perspectives are valuable. Glaringly, Fuller failed to interview a single person belonging to the group he describes, though he apparently “returned a number of times, including a 12-hour visit, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on a recent weekday.”

    Instead, he “saw the desperation of the mentally ill, the drug dependent and homeless, and heard from embittered residents” (my emphasis). As conveyed by the two photos included in the article, which depict people slouching on the street with their heads covered, Fuller gazed at “the mentally ill, the drug dependent and homeless”—while actually engaging with people living in nearby houses.

    “I think it is unfair to simply portray homeless people as disgusting ‘indigents’ without trying to learn personally why some of them found themselves dependent on drugs and living on the street,” wrote a NYT reader, in a response that was published alongside a slew of other comments, most of which praised the article.

    The reader continues: “In another world the average nytimes reader could easily find themselves in similar circumstances.” That’s a good point. But the NYT article is clearly written to encourage readers to walk past those living on the streets of the Tenderloin without thinking of their shared humanity.

     

    “Flashy Science Hub and Vaping Parties Fail to Win Friends at WHO Tobacco Talks,” The New York Times

    Tobacco harm reduction received more skewed coverage on Sunday in a Times article that reported on a vaping industry event—a “Nicotine Is Not Your Enemy Soirée”—held in the convention center where the World Health Organization recently conducted its tobacco treaty talks.

    The author, Sheila Kaplan, mischaracterizes event speaker Dr. Bernhard-Michael Mayer as an “industry advocate,” when in fact he is a professor of pharmacology and toxicology, a tobacco harm reduction advocate, and is financially “independen[t] of the vaping and tobacco industry,” as he told Filter over email.

    In my opinion she used this expression on purpose to disqualify me as [a] reliable expert and to dismiss anything I said as biased,” Dr. Mayer said.

    Kaplan does not just discredit Mayer; she glosses over an overwhelming amount of research that has found vaping to be considerably less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

    All [alternatives to combustible cigarettes] boast to be safer than traditional cigarettes because they do not create the toxic smoke that comes from burning tobacco. But there are unanswered questions about the health effects of the chemicals that users do inhale,” Kaplan writes.

    Of course, much research remains to be conducted on vaping—as is true of many other consumer and health products. But some questions about the “health effects” of vaping when compared to cigarettes have been answered. A congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found “conclusive evidence that completely substituting e-cigarettes for conventional cigarettes reduces users’ exposure to many toxicants and carcinogens” and “substantial evidence that completely switching from regular use of conventional cigarettes to e-cigarettes results in reduced short-term adverse health outcomes in several organ systems.” Public Health England estimated e-cigarettes to be around 95 percent safer than regular cigarettes.

    Through unbalanced reporting, Kaplan forecloses broader questions about what it means—and what health advocates can do—when a product’s harm reduction potential lines up with industry motives.

    As Mayer put it: Are we promoting the vaping industry when we are advocating e-cigarettes for [tobacco harm reduction]? Does promotion of a product implicate promotion of industry?”

     

    “Correction: Funeral Home-Naxolone-Maryland Story,” The Associated Press

    On Monday, the Associated Press issued a correction after an article wrongly stated that small amounts of fentanyl could be toxic via skin exposure. The original article was about Maryland funeral homes preemptively stocking naxolone for fear employees might be exposed to opioids from “a dead person’s body or the clothes of a mourner.” The article appears to have been picked up by the New York Times before the correction was issued.

    Journalist Zachary Siegel brought the error to the AP’s attention, tweeting:

    In response, the AP added a correction at the top of the article stating: In a story Oct. 6 about funeral homes stocking overdose medicine, The Associated Press reported erroneously that skin contact with certain opioids such as fentanyl or carfentanil in doses the size of a grain of salt can be deadly. The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy advises that incidental skin exposure is not likely to be harmful if the skin is promptly washed.”

    The misreporting by AP exemplifies the broader scare around fentanyl, which generates ever more sensational headlines about the opioid overdose crisis.   

     

    • Sessi is an editorial fellow at Filter. Her work has appeared on Broadly, i-D, Pitchfork, and them.

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