Alcohol Scare Tactics Work
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
News editors are much more interested a report that 44% of college students are supposedly “binge drinking” than in one finding that only about one-half of one percent of college students binge drink. The exaggerated and misleading “scare” report is carried in headlines across the country while the non-scare report is greeted with yawns and ignored.
Alcohol activist groups such as the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), and Henry Wechsler’s College Alcohol Study project capitalize on the thirst for exaggerated and sensationalist stories.
“America’s Doctor,” Dean Edell, M.D., has pointed out that “the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined the bias toward scare stories in mainstream newspapers. In a clever sting operation, the journal published two articles on the same subject: the link between nuclear radiation exposure and cancer.” The scary study found a higher rate of cancer among a small number of workers in a radiation research laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The non-scare story found no increase in cancer among 18,000,000 people living near nuclear facilities.
Dr. Edell explains that “JAMA issued carefully crafted press releases, of similar length and tone, on both stories. The editors wanted to see how newspapers around the country would handle both stories. Their. sting worked.”
The results? “Seventeen newspapers, and major ones at that, covered at least one of the studies. Nearly half of the stories dealt only with the scarier report about the nuclear lab workers. Papers as august as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today didn’t even mention the reassuring study. The papers that did cover both reports wrote in far greater detail about Oak Ridge. The wire services, a primary news source for media around the world, were just as bad.” 1
Many temperance-oriented groups and activist leaders typically ignore positive findings about alcohol and focus on any negative result they can find in a study, regardless of its significance. It’s hard to get publicity and to raise money if the public realizes that underage drinking continues to drop along with alcohol-related problems.
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