“The Epidemic That Wasn’t” (Even If We Said It Was)

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the media coverage of “crack babies” back in the ’80s and ’90s? Allow the front page of today’s New York Times “Science Times” section to refresh your memory.

When the use of crack cocaine became a nationwide epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, there were widespread fears that prenatal exposure to the drug would produce a generation of severely damaged children. Newspapers carried headlines like “Cocaine: A Vicious Assault on a Child,” “Crack’s Toll Among Babies: A Joyless View” and “Studies: Future Bleak for Crack Babies.”

Newspapers like… the Times, producer of the “Crack’s Toll Among Babies: A Joyless View” headline that today’s Times mentions but doesn’t cop to having authored. In this 1989 “Crack’s Toll” piece, a research psychologist is quoted saying that “prenatal exposure to illegal drugs, particularly powdered cocaine and its smokable derivative, crack, seems to be ‘interfering with the central core of what it is to be human.’” (Read: Epidemic!)

Turns out, according to today’s Times, it’s “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.”

Picking up where I left off in today’s piece:

But now researchers are systematically following children who were exposed to cocaine before birth…So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of such exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small.

So, sounds like the headline should be “The Epidemic That Hasn’t, So Far, (At Least Not The Way We Suggested It Might In Earlier Coverage).”

Back in 2004, Mariah Blake wrote for CJR about the “media myth” of the “crack baby” and detailed how the Times contributed to it over the years (even quoting from the “Crack’s Toll” article). Blake wrote about “a group of doctors and scientists …lobbying The Times to drop terms like ‘crack baby’ from its pages,” because, the group said, these terms are “stigmatizing” and “lack scientific validity.”

Reported Blake four years ago (emphasis mine):

While the [Times] hasn’t used “crack baby” in the last several months, it has referred to babies being “addicted” to crack, which, as the researchers told the editors, is scientifically inaccurate, since babies cannot be born addicted to cocaine.

Which leaves me wondering about the photo caption accompanying today’s (print) Times piece (emphasis mine): “In a 1988 photo, testing a baby born addicted to cocaine.”

The “researchers” who were lobbying the Times in 2004 included Barry M. Lester, a professor of Psychiatry at Brown University, who is quoted in today’s Times piece and whose most recent research findings seem to be the news hook for the article.

I emailed Lester to ask him about today’s Times caption, pointing out how it conflicted with what he and fellow researchers wrote in an “Open Letter To The Media” in 2004, namely:

Addiction is a technical term that refers to compulsive behavior that continues in spite of adverse consequences. By definition, babies cannot be “addicted” to crack or anything else. In utero physiologic dependence on opiates (not addiction), known as Neonatal Narcotic Abstinence Syndrome, is readily diagnosed, but no such symptoms have been found to occur following prenatal cocaine exposure.

Lester replied that “the information in the letter you refer to is correct.”

So, in a piece that reminds us — without, you know, naming names— how news organizations’ coverage of crack and babies hasn’t been particularly careful (or, it’s looking like, accurate), the Times isn’t particularly careful (or accurate) in its caption?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.