Sep 1 1992

Don’t Forget the Hype

Media, Drugs, and Public Opinion

Solid lines: number of stories per month in New York Times index on drug abuse, addiction, and trafficking
Diamonds, dashed lines: percentage of U.S. public saying drugs are “the most important problem facing this country today”
Circles, dotted lines: percentage of high school seniors who say they have used any illicit drugs in the past 12 months

The New York Times/CBS News poll records two periods during the last decade when public concern about drugs suddenly skyrocketed. In spring 1986, when the media “discovered” crack, the percentage of the public identifying” drugs” as “the No. 1 problem facing the nation” climbed from 3 percent to13 percent in three months. A second shift occurred in 1989, when the number of people who identified drugs as the most serious problem leapt from 23 percent in June to 65 percent in September.

The statistics on actual drug use during the 1980s indicate no material basis for these increases in public concern. Annual reports by the University of Michigan on drug usage among U.S. high school and college students (the sectors of the population most likely to use drugs) show that most illegal drug use has been generally decreasing since the late 1970s.Powder and crack cocaine use peaked in 1985 and 1986, respectively.

So when the public suddenly became aware of the “drug crisis” in the spring of 1986, the use of all major drugs was declining. The media’s role in prompting this public response can be extrapolated from the publishing record of the New York Times, whose lead is frequently followed by media around the nation.

Hype I: The Discovery of Crack

In May 1985, the New York Times published its first articles about crack, an inexpensive and easily smokable form of cocaine. Crack was presented in these stories as a highly addictive and destructive inner-city drug, which frequently compelled its users to violence. The image of poor, mostly minority drug addicts, driven nearly insane by crack, mugging and murdering innocent (white) citizens was driven into the public’s imagination. Throughout 1985, the Times published an average of 36 articles per month on drug traffic and use. By November 1985, crack had graduated to a front-page story, and the Times assigned a full-time reporter, Jane Gross, to cover the drug beat.

The drug story blossomed into a serious national issue in June 1986, after college basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. Between July and October 1986, the Times printed a monthly average of 103 articles, hitting full stride in September with 169 articles.

Polls recorded a rapid shift in public anxiety about drugs following the heightened press coverage. On Sept. 15, 1986, at the peak of coverage, Ronald and Nancy Reagan warned the nation in a televised address to “Just Say No” to drugs — a slogan that met with little public response when first coined in 1983. Congress, also eager to score some easy publicity points, responded two days later by hurriedly approving a $1.7 billion “anti-drug” package.

The passage of this legislation appeared to resolve the drug issue for both media and public, and press coverage of the drug issue and public concern decreased after October 1986 to a low but steady simmer.

Hype II: The Foreign Scourge

In 1989, drugs were again picked up by the national media, and again the NYT/CBS poll showed a corresponding leap in public anxiety about drugs. This time, however, the public had already been primed by the 1988 presidential election, in which Bush’s vow to “end the scourge of drugs” was a major campaign issue. By January 1989, when Bush took office, a full 16 percent of respondents said drugs were “the No. 1 problem facing the nation.”

Throughout 1988, the New York Times ran an average of 65 drug stories each month (already twice the monthly average of 1985), and during 1989 this number again nearly doubled to a monthly average of 101 drug articles. The administration’s “war on drugs” provided the foundation for the media’s drug stories, focusing less on the dangers of addicts at home and more on the threat of international drug cartels and “narcoterrorists.”

The media blitz was reinforced on Sept. 6, 1989, when Bush gave a special address from the Oval Office on the corrupting influence of drugs and foreign drug dealers. In September, the Times published 238 articles on drugs — almost seven articles a day. By the end of that month, 64 percent of the public believed that drugs were a more threatening problem than nuclear war, environmental degradation, toxic waste, AIDS, poverty or the national debt.

According to John Benson, the senior polling analyst at the Roper Center, “People responded with the first thing that came to mind, and as usual, that’s what is appearing in the media.”

Following the boom/bust pattern established in 1986, the public’s anxiety about drugs began to fade after the U.S. invasion of Panama on Dec. 20, 1989, which was presented to the public as the drug bust of the century. After Manuel Noriega surrendered on Jan. 4 to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, media interest in the drug issue melted away, as if Noriega’s capture had solved the U.S.’s drug problems.

Hype III: The Hype Lives

Although public anxiety about drugs subsides after media attention to the drug issue fades, the periodic media crises have lasting effects. Strict laws for drug possession and distribution passed in 1986 have resulted in greatly increased arrest and incarceration rates, although drug use has been steadily decreasing since 1980. Drug arrests in the U.S. are now running at more than a million a year, more than two-thirds simply for possession.

Federal spending on drug policy has also been growing, increasing slowly until 1986, when it almost doubled. The federal anti-drug budget received another major boost in 1990, increasing from $6.4 billion to nearly $10 billion. This spending is primarily on interdiction and prison expansions, not on the treatment and rehabilitation programs that have been proven to reduce levels of addiction.

Today, the “drug issue” remains a blank screen of public concern upon which society’s most profound fears — about the urban poor, or dark-skinned foreigners — can be easily focused. Although polls indicate that public concern about drugs is again at an ebb, it remains a small matter for the media or the administration to bring the issue back to life.