Addicted to Tobacco Stories: A One-Sided Portrayal of a Risky Product

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Tobacco Versus Other Risky Products

Consumers face risks when they choose to buy and consume certain products. But the news media do not treat all of those risks the same. Tobacco, especially, receives far more total coverage with a far more negative tone than does every other risky product. This is the finding of a special year-long Media Research Center study of news coverage of risky products and the industries which make and sell them. For the study, Media Research Center analysts reviewed all of the stories about several risky products on the morning and evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as CNN's World News and World Today shows between August 1, 1995 and July 31, 1996. Tobacco and the tobacco industry received more negative coverage by far than any other risky legal product or its maker, such as dietary fat and the food industry, automobiles and the auto industry, alcohol and the alcohol industry, and pesticides and the chemical industry. Tobacco even received more coverage than illegal drugs. This media obsession with tobacco affected coverage of other issues as well, even coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign.

Tobacco and Illegal Drugs

Which is worse, a legal product that if used over many decades can be life-threatening, or an illegal product that can be of more immediate danger?

For America's news media, the answer is overwhelmingly the former. Over the twelve-month study period television news has devoted significantly more air time to reporting on tobacco than to reporting on cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana combined.

There were 413 stories during the twelve-month study period about tobacco; there were 340 stories about illegal drugs. This disparity was present despite well-documented rapid increases in the use of illegal drugs over the past few years, notably among teenagers. It should be noted, too, that many of the stories about illegal drugs were brief anchor-reads about, for instance, the status of football star Michael Irvin's drug trial, not rising drug use.

Among the print media, the disparity has been even greater. A Nexis search of headlines in American newspapers found that the terms "tobacco or smoking or cigarette" were employed 9,067 times between during the study period. Over the same time period, however, the terms "cocaine or heroin or LSD or marijuana or illegal drugs" were used only 3,875 times. In other words, there were more than twice as many stories focusing on tobacco than there were stories focusing on illegal drugs.

Politics, Tobacco, and Illegal Drugs

President Clinton has helped put the tobacco story on the map. Eighty-five of the television news tobacco stories were about the Clinton Administration's attacks on the tobacco industry. Almost all of these stories were upbeat about Clinton's attempts to regulate the industry, portraying him as courageously taking on a powerful industry. NBC's Bryant Gumbel, for instance, announced on the August 11, 1995 Today that "in a historic move the Clinton Administration has declared nicotine to be a drug and has proposed regulations aimed at curbing smoking by teenagers." According to CBS' John Roberts, on the August 10, 1995 This Morning, "President Clinton is stepping up federal efforts to harness smoking among teenagers. He'll detail some tough new measures today that are sure to put him at odds with the powerful tobacco lobby."

But when the issue was the increased use of illegal drugs, Clinton Administration officials were only mentioned in 45 stories, and most of these references were positive. Again, the disparity is revealing. The same reporters who are willing to accept Clinton's premise that government policies can discourage smoking behavior among the young demand little accountability from him for increased illegal drug use. And there was rarely even the suggestion in the media that the president was playing up the tobacco issue to hide how much illegal drug use had increased during his watch.

Among the print media, the same disparity was present. A Nexis search reveals that there were 1,819 stories between August 1, 1995 and July 31, 1996 that had "tobacco or smoking or cigarette" in the headline and a reference to Bill Clinton in the body of the story. Stories with the terms "cocaine or heroin or LSD or marijuana or illegal drugs" in the headline and a reference to Clinton in the body of the story numbered only 204.

This media's obvious distaste for tobacco continued after the study period and affected campaign coverage as the 1996 presidential contest heated up. Normally, when a politician radically changes positions on an issue, it's big news. For instance, there were five network evening news stories during the 1996 Republican National Convention about Jack Kemp altering his positions on illegal immigration and affirmative action once he became the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

"The quarterback became the acrobat today," reported ABC's Jackie Judd on the August 14, 1996 World News Tonight. "Kemp was flip-flopping on long held positions." She noted that these changes "left at least one delegate here feeling abandoned" and that "Kemp's change in position on these core issues fights the very image that he's built for himself as an independent thinker." According to Dan Rather, on that same night's CBS Evening News, "Bob Dole has reversed himself on deficit reduction versus tax cuts. Jack Kemp has reversed himself on how he feels about immigration." Rather wondered: "Isn't that, or is it, going to make it more difficult to attack Bill Clinton on the character issue?"

But these bloodhounds sniffing out hypocrisy turned quiet when Vice President Al Gore radically changed his position on tobacco. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Gore said that his sister's death from lung cancer in 1984 prompted his anti-tobacco crusade. None of the networks pointed out that in 1988, he boasted to tobacco growers that "throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've dug it in. I've sprayed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it." There were no stories on the evening news shows during the convention about Gore's change of heart. The same reporters who derided Kemp for changing positions on immigration and affirmative action didn't find Gore's flip-flop on tobacco at all newsworthy.

Tobacco and Fat

There was an even greater disparity between the number of stories on tobacco and the number on other legal products. On television -- during the same time period in which there were 413 stories about tobacco -- there were 136 stories about dietary fat and obesity; 94 stories focused on auto safety; only 58 stories were related to alcohol and health.

The disparity between reporting on tobacco and reporting on dietary fat and obesity is especially curious. The same health advocates who tell us that tobacco contributes to 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year also report that obesity contributes to 300,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. It would stand to reason, then, that there would be about three-fourths the number of stories on fat and obesity as there were about tobacco. There weren't.

Reporters acknowledged the riskiness of obesity and dietary fat. "Obesity, of course, is a major health problem in this country," NBC's Tom Brokaw reported on the April 29, 1996 Nightly News. "It is estimated that it's responsible for 300,000 deaths a year from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and the like." CBS' Jacqueline Adams reported that "for years doctors have known that during pregnancy, obesity can cause serious problems like diabetes and bleeding for the mother. But according to two new studies in tomorrow's Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity in the mother can also cause serious problems for the fetus," including birth defects.

One reporter, ABC's John McKenzie, insisted that even one high-fat meal, if eaten at an inopportune moment, can be dangerous. McKenzie told viewers about a University of Marylyand study in which researchers "found that after a high-fat meal, arteries, when required to handle an increased flow of blood, could expand on average only 50 percent of normal. It means that under conditions of stress and exertion, people who already have constricted arteries may not get enough blood to the heart."

While reporters acknowledged this riskiness, they didn't give the risk of obesity and dietary fat nearly the same amount of coverage they gave to tobacco. There were only about one-fourth the number of stories about obesity and fat as there were stories about tobacco, even though obesity contributes to three-fourths as many deaths each year as tobacco.

Complaints Against Tobacco

There was also a different standard of judgment for the industries that make and sell other risky products. They were never subjected to nearly the same hostility that the tobacco industry endured. There were no stories, for example, about fast-food advertising enticing kids and others to consume products that may one day kill them. Nor were there any stories pointing out the medical costs of obesity. And no network reporter sought to outline the campaign contributions of companies which produce and sell alcohol. But the networks were all critical of tobacco advertising and campaign contributions, as well as the medical costs to society of smoking-related illnesses.

In stories about advertising, the assumption was clear: Cunning tobacco advertising entices unwitting youngsters into lifelong addiction to tobacco. ABC's Nancy Snyderman, for instance, reported "that 12-18 year-olds are in fact most influenced by [tobacco] advertising...and obviously we know that the earlier you smoke, the more addicted you are, the harder it is to break. So I think it's one more indication that advertising works."

But there are those both inside and outside the tobacco and advertising industries who question how effective -- and how constitutional -- proposed regulations on tobacco advertising could be. "How will banning tobacco ads possibly discourage smoking?" asked columnist James K. Glassman in the August 27, 1996 Washington Post. "LSD use rose 183 percent between 1992 and 1995, and I haven't seen any LSD ads recently." Such arguments were rarely heard on television news.

Another big tobacco story: The political donations of the industry and how those donations allegedly affected politicians' attitudes and actions toward tobacco. Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum, writing in the July 29 National Review, asserted that in such reports, the assumption usually is "that tobacco companies had given Dole and the Republican Party a lot of money, so he was clearly in league with the devil." According to Sullum, such reports assume the industry buys votes and never consider "the possibility that politicians...might get tobacco money because they support certain policies, rather than the other way around."

Sullum is right. Linda Douglass, for example, on the June 27, 1996 CBS Evening News, told viewers that "Dole now is in the uncomfortable position of often siding with the tobacco industry just as cigarette makers are pumping unprecedented sums of money into the Republican Party." On the same night, NBC's Bob Kur, after quoting the Clinton campaign's charge that Dole was toeing the tobacco industry line, pointed out, with a large on-screen graphic, that the industry "gave nearly $3 million in political contributions last year, 85 percent of the money to Republicans." Industry -- especially tobacco industry -- contributions were all reporters cared about. The political contributions of trial lawyers or unions sparked little media interest.

Second-hand smoke was the focus of twelve stories. Reporters were much more likely to cover studies showing that second-hand smoke leads to health problems in non-smokers than they were to cover studies which questioned such data. Example: A November 14, 1995 Congressional Research Service study, while not declaring passive smoke to be safe, questioned some of the numbers put forward by second-hand smoke critics. The number of stories on the CRS study -- zero.

Reporters often mistook experts on health and medicine for experts on public policy. Bob Kur, on the April 9, 1996 Today, introduced viewers to a doctor who studied the effects of second-hand smoke on children. Kur didn't show any skepticism toward the doctor when he recommended that "smoking be banned wherever children are present and even suggests smoking be considered in child custody cases and foster home placements. With tobacco under increasing assault, [Dr.] DiFranza also believes a study like his could prompt a class-action lawsuit on behalf of children." Kur didn't allow other views into his story, such as the view that separating children from their smoking parents is a bit extreme or the view that much tobacco litigation is frivolous.

Journalists seem to have lost some perspective when reporting on tobacco. They not only air far more stories on tobacco than on other legal risky products, but they have allowed the Clinton administration to use smoking to deflect public attention from rising illegal drug use. Responsible reporters should not ignore tobacco, but they should not apply to it a standard which is harsher even than the standard they apply to illegal drugs.