Three widely distributed stories from the past couple of months illustrate the profound ways in which the media perpetuates harmful myths and acts as a propaganda arm of the ongoing, failed War on Drugs.
In each case, information presented as fact was either untrue from the start, or proven false upon further analysis. Further, each piece of reporting exposed a fundamental flaw in how the media interacts with elected officials and law enforcement—parroting their words without fact-checking or speaking to non-criminal justice experts.
Considering how bad drug policy reporting has long fed the drug war, continued media scrutiny is vital.
Within this story, an egregious but common myth is perpetuated about the risk of overdose to law enforcement.
The first example was a March 19 video, titled “Schumer discusses new tech to aid police fighting opioid epidemic” that was shared by many outlets. It covered a last-minute visit by Senator Chuck Schumer to the Capital Region of New York State to announce the allocation of funding for advanced drug testing technology—mainly in reference to fentanyl.
Within this story, an egregious but common myth is perpetuated about the risk of overdose to law enforcement when responding to drug-related calls or conducting searches—misinformation that is repeated several times on air by reporters, Senator Schumer, and law enforcement leaders.
This risk has been proven by toxicologists and other experts to be practically non-existent. Yet an internet search yields many stories of officers who experienced symptoms at a scene, some of whom required medical intervention. In all cases, further laboratory and toxicology testing, including that of the officer’s blood, showed no presence of fentanyl or other substances that would indicate overdose or overdose symptoms.
The story, as is typical, relied entirely on a press release from the Vermont State Police. No additional experts were consulted.
Our second example exemplifies the coverage of one of these cases. On March 16, multiple media outlets picked up a story titled, “Vermont state trooper revived with Narcan after traffic stop” from the VTDigger, in which an officer felt symptoms and fell unresponsive after a routine traffic stop led to the discovery of a small amount of heroin.
The initial story, as is typical, relied entirely on a press release from the Vermont State Police, which reinforced the myth of “overdose” caused by passive exposure to fentanyl and other substances. No additional experts were consulted.
To its credit, the VTDigger did conduct and publish a March 20 fact-check, dispelling some of the misinformation.
One month after the initial story, on April 16, it was reported that laboratory analysis of the heroin seized during the traffic stop turned out to contain no other substances, including fentanyl or other synthetics.
Based on available evidence, the symptoms experienced by officers in cases such as these are consistent with a panic attack—not an overdose or opioid intoxication. This is not to minimize the experiences of those involved; to be clear, law enforcement face very real risks in the course of their duties. Yet that is no cause to create unfounded fear and panic by perpetuating myths.
This conflation of two completely different incidents in order to create fear and panic in the general public is all too common.
The third and most recent of our examples is perhaps the most egregious. On April 12, multiple media outlets carried some version of the Associated Press story, “Police issue warning after fentanyl laced marijuana confiscated in upstate New York.”
The brief report combined two stories—one in which marijuana was seized that tested positive for fentanyl, and another in which three people overdosed on an unnamed substance in a vehicle in Albany County.
This conflation of two completely different incidents in order to create fear and panic in the general public is all too common when it comes to drug coverage. In today’s media environment, the adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is truer than ever before.
Several components to this story require critical examination. Once again, information provided by law enforcement is the beginning and end of the information presented. No other experts are consulted to offer a science- and fact-based counter to the premise that people are knowingly “lacing” a substance with minimal safety risks (marijuana) with one that does present risk when injected or otherwise consumed directly (fentanyl). Yet this scenario just doesn not fit with what we know.
First, based on available knowledge of drug trafficking and distribution, any presence of fentanyl would likely be minimal and due to cross-contamination, not purposeful adulteration. Second, marijuana and fentanyl have different combustion points, making it unlikely that an individual using both substances together would experience an overdose. (In other words, while fentanyl can be ingested using foil and an indirect flame, it isn’t smoked in the same way as marijuana.) Lastly, laboratory testing of the marijuana seized found no presence of fentanyl at all—meaning the panic caused by the initial reporting of the incident was unfounded and unnecessary.
Despite all three of these stories contributing to drug-related panic through incorrect or omitted information, the vast majority of outlets that picked them up will neither correct them nor run follow-ups that repair the damage.
This is exactly how myths are spread, and these myths cause real harm.
One assertion that isn’t hyperbole is that bad media coverage worsens the crisis.
At the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, we’re currently conducting a project to mark the 10-year anniversary of the reform of New York’s cruel and unfair Rockefeller drug laws. As we look back, many of us can not help but think about the history of these laws and how they came about. Passed in 1973, just two years after President Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the Rockefeller laws were enacted in the midst of what the media deemed a “heroin crisis.”
For well over a century, the media’s role in perpetuating myths about drugs—including the harms of crack versus powder cocaine; the terrifying (and since disproved) notion of a generation of “crack babies;” violent, unrepentant “super predator ” tropes; and more—has fed the drive for racist criminalization.
The media is the means by which most of the general public develops its belief systems in the absence of “real-life” experience of most illegal drugs—and it is those beliefs, reflected in officials elected by the public, that ultimately drive laws and policies.
Criminalization of drugs has failed to reduce the number of people who use drugs, the incidence of drug-related crime, or fatal overdoses. Misinformation perpetuates stigma toward people who use drugs and prevents us from addressing drug use as a health issue. Additionally, by causing unfounded panic, it actually increases risk for law enforcement.
The media is complicit in many harms, and must critically re-examine its role. Frustratingly, responsible and accurate reporting has the potential to be a valuable tool in ending our failed approach. But much recent coverage suggests that today, during the overdose crisis, the media is as committed to the War on Drugs as ever.
The deliberate delineation of fentanyl compared to heroin is eerily similar to that of crack versus powder cocaine. It is already fueling increased criminal penalties, drug-induced homicide charges, and dangerous political rhetoric about capital punishment for people dealing drugs. None of these “solutions” is associated with outcomes other than pain and suffering.
One assertion that isn’t hyperbole is that bad media coverage worsens the crisis. In the context of 70,000 American lives being lost each year, this really is a life-and-death issue.
This article is part of the Katal Center’s #RockReform10 project, exploring the legacy of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the impact of their reform in 2009.