CBS Hypes Misleading Government Alcohol Study

Taxpayers pay for unnecessary study on alcohol-related fatalities.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently published a new report that not only misled, but was completely unnecessary. And CBS repeated it rather than criticize its irrelevancy.

The NIAAA study claimed that the number of alcohol related deaths has been vastly under-reported. However, this was misleading. A separate government agency NIAAA agrees with has been publishing the correct number of deaths for years, and media outlets have been using that correct data. So the new taxpayer study went looking for a problem that wasn’t there.

NIAAA claimed that while alcohol is being blamed for 3 percent of traffic deaths, the actual number is 7 times that, or 21 percent. NIAAA’s assumption was that people were relying on death certificate information. But the 21 percent number generated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was already being used and widely reported by news outlets. NHTSA is considered the authority on the subject, and the agency spent $1.3 million in 2013 alone to generate the fatality data.

The NHTSA came up with the data through its Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). U.S. taxpayers spent $1,297,400 on the FARS database in 2013, and the NHTSA has requested the same amount of funding for FARS in 2014.

Far from being ignored, FARS has been cited more than a dozen times by national newspapers alone in the past year as an authority on this topic, but that didn’t stop media outlets from picking up on NIAAA’s report and complaining about under-reported alcohol-traffic deaths. CBS News wrote about this study on its website on March 24, as did a local Washington D.C. CBS affiliate.

A Nexis search for “Fatality Analysis Reporting System” showed 16 mentions of the database in the past year from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Even CBS News’ website has frequently mentioned the system’s data, including in an article from Jan. 22, 2013. NIAAA’s Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., has cited FARS himself in a previous report from April 2005 as an authority on this topic.

The full NIAAA report, entitled “State Variation in Underreporting of Alcohol Involvement on Death Certificates: Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatalities as an Example,” was published in the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. The Business and Media Institute contacted the NHTSA to confirm that their FARS analysis is meant to be the authority on alcohol related deaths, but was waiting for a response at the time of publication.

— Mike Ciandella is Research Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Mike Ciandella on Twitter.