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Would We Be Better Off if the Media Weren't Trying to Save Us?
April 22 2003
Maia Szalavitz

Health coverage always includes a certain amount of moralizing - few reporters ever knowingly advocate unhealthy behavior and most openly or covertly aim to help their audience develop and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Risks are always to be minimized and zeroed out if possible; health and safety are almost always seen as the ultimate and correct goal in such coverage. Deviations from what is deemed healthy behavior are viewed as sins and lapses. Rarely does a health story ever acknowledge that someone could rationally choose to prioritize anything other than health.

Never is this more obvious than in the coverage of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. This is the first in a series of articles exploring and exposing how these moral ideals shape American news coverage and bias it towards continually reinforcing conventional wisdom.

Not only does this make for boring, repetitive reading; it also doesn't expose readers to the full range of expert opinion and scientific research which is optimal for public policy making.

Consider a recent story from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even the headline "Putting Pressure on Parents Who Let Teens Drink at Home," implies that letting adolescents drink at home (which is legal if they are your own children) is always wrong.

The second paragraph sets the moralizing tone which pervades the article

"... students aren't the only ones who need to worry about the parties being raided. Across the country, communities are taking steps to stiffen criminal penalties for parents who open their homes to underage drinking. Alcohol-prevention experts hope such efforts will erode what they view as a widespread acceptance of allowing teenagers to drink in 'supervised' settings."

Next, numerous prosecutors are quoted, including one who compares allowing teen drinking at home to "leaving a loaded gun lying around." And from the reader's point of view that message is driven home by the writer focusing on examples of adult-sanctioned teen drinking that lead to fatal drunk driving accidents.

But the newspaper doesn't stop to ask whether it is possible that parents who let their kids drink at home may be right to do so? Or examine why this practice has gained "widespread acceptance." Could kids who drink with their parents be less likely to binge drink and less likely to drive under the influence of alcohol?

If parents allow teenagers who have drunk a few beers to stay overnight rather than drive, might this actually be a more effective way of reducing drunk driving than jailing parents for allowing alcohol to be served at their teens' parties?

While conceding that teen drinking is "inevitable," the reporter is so preoccupied with worst case examples that he fails to scrutinize the evidence or address the issue with the kind of objectivity that could help readers form an opinion as to what the best policy might be to solve the problem.

Instead, they are lead by their emotions to the one and only solution on the table: punish parents who allow teenagers to drink. But what if the majority of parents who supervise teenage drinking act responsibly, and don't allow their charges to get drunk or to drive a car? Is that not a possibility obscured by a few parents who failed to do the right thing?

Many readers of the Inquirer might be interested in knowing that some of the most respected researchers on alcohol abuse believe - based on American studies and cross-cultural comparisons - that there are far fewer problems with teenage drinking in cultures where teens are allowed to drink under the supervision of their parents at home instead of acquiring the sudden new freedom to drink once they reach the legal 'drinking age.'

Researchers like Alan Marlatt, Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, Robert Millman, Director of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services at the Payne Whitney Clinic and Chief of the Division of Community and Public Health Service at Cornell Medical School, Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance , and hundreds of others have questioned the "zero tolerance" law-enforcement approach to teen drinking. Many have data to back up their approach.

But until the media aspires to greater objectivity on these issues, that science will rarely come to public attention.



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