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Colorado Shooting and ‘Bath Salts Zombie’: Troubles of Public Health Reporting

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I have a perpetual burr in my side on aspects of drug and addiction coverage. It’s hard to expect altruism in every avenue of journalism (innumerable slideshows about Katie Holmes prove the fallacy of that wish), but I want to outline problems in public health coverage I see now and again, in hopes that we can identify, as a group, when to ask media to rethink what they’re doing. The way we handle public health coverage matters. Those that report upon public health, an umbrella under which I stow addiction, should take extra care to check reportage angles and avoid stigma. Public health writing should not a business, though more and more, I see it made out to be.

There are many examples of this sort of coverage, but what made me pause recently was a story on The Fix, a site devoted to addiction and recovery. I support many parts of their coverage and several of their excellent writers, but I don’t condone the certain tendency towards leaping on anything that could be remotely linked to drugs without forethought. The site certainly is not alone in this, but here it manufactured the perfect storm of problems, taking advantage of a recent tragedy to perpetuate rumors and speculation.

Let’s pull it apart–

Headline:

Batman Killer: The Drug Angle
James Holmes reportedly took Vicodin before he opened fire on moviegoers.

1. Vilifies Drugs Without Evidence. We saw this with Bath Salts Zombie, which turned out to be ludicrous.

It’s scary to think people responsible for acts of horror, mass shootings to cannibalism, might be operating on their own facilities (many with mental illness), but it’s largely true. It’s easier to condemn drugs, painting a demon substance responsible for uncivilized acts in our “civilized” world. However, drugs are not people armed with guns, knives or teeth, nevertheless a valid scapegoat, nor an answer or balm to tragedy.

In a recent NYTimes Op-Ed, David Brooks says it well:

The crucial point is that the dynamics are internal, not external. These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones.

Yet, after every rampage, there are always people who want to use these events to indict whatever they don’t like about society. A few years ago, some writers tried to blame violent video games for a rash of killings. The problem is that rampage murderers tend to be older than regular murderers and they tend not to be heavy video game users. Besides, there’s very little evidence that violent video games lead to real life violence in the first place.

And people don’t like drugs. They’re easy to blame. As an addiction writer, I don’t like to elbow my way into the pit, saying, “hey, this wasn’t drugs’ fault.” However, public health reporters have to know when to sleuth out the real answer instead of bullying forward with their own interests. It’s endlessly more frustrating when drug and addiction publications, hopefully aimed at lessening stigma surrounding addicts and drug users, incite the rumors, thereby worsening the problem.

Holmes reportedly admitted to police that he took 100mg of Vicodin about two and a half hours before the shooting, and unconfirmed reports say he was hooked on the prescription drug.

2. Vilifies People Who Use Legal Prescription Drugs

Certain publications speculated, in the case of the Colorado shooting, that the suspect may have been using Vicodin, a prescription painkiller. Using speculation as news in the case of public health is dually problematic: 1. without context and information, which speculatory stories lack by default, it alludes that drugs may have caused the incident. 2. it propagates the notion that anyone who uses Vicodin or prescription painkillers may have the potential for violence/crazy behavior. This isolates prescription drug users, perhaps making family and friends question a loved one’s use, and worse yet, could shame and seclude those who medically and correctly use Vicodin.

3. Vilifies Drugs

Drugs are not the glaring causality for acts of violence. People who use drugs have higher incidence rates of mental illness. As noted above, it’s the psychology, not the drug nor the sociology, that defines the problem.

4. Names Celebrities for the Sake of Naming Celebrities, Further Perpetuates the Notion That Drugs Are Villains

Health Ledger—who played the Joker in The Dark Knight—had Vicodin in his system when he died back in 2008. Sources also claim that Holmes regularly smoked pot outside his home. “I’d see him smoking weed behind the apartment,” says his Aurora neighbor Lance Bradshaw.

So now we’re to believe that anyone who takes Vicodin and smokes pot is automatically unstable or dangerous? The World Drug Report in 2009 indicates that 10.7% of people in North America (roughly 32,520,000 people) use cannibis annually (PDF), and we dole out upwards of 131 million Vicodin prescriptions each year in the U.S. That’s a lot of “crazy” people.

5. Journalistic Snafu of Taking Advantage of a Hot Topic, Here a Tragedy, for Page Views

Bottom line, we didn’t need a story about this. Not only did we not need it, it hurt the truth and validity of addiction and substance abuse coverage. I don’t want to beat a dead horse in terms of pointing out poor journalism, but I write about it to speak against media reporting that thoughtlessly piggybacks on a news trend or story, that makes matters and stereotypes worse. It’s all the more worrisome that a grievously ill-thought story was purported by a publication supposedly dedicated to addiction and substance abuse interests.

Rumors aid tragedy coverage in no way; they aid the victims in no way; they aid drug users in no way; they aid people with valid prescription medications in no way. Journalism for the sake of page views and site traffic falls appropriate for fashion and tech gadgets, not marginalized public health topics.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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