When it comes to drug busts, journalists often don’t ask the right questions

February 11, 2016
(U.S. Army / Flickr)

It’s a proud day for, well, whichever town this happens to be. Stone-faced cops take the podium to announce their big drug bust, toting a few kilos of heroin or cocaine and a pyramid of mugshots. Officers describe the investigation, pledge their commitment to safe streets, and warn any drug dealers out there to watch their backs. Reporters, meanwhile, return to the newsroom with a flashy story and the photos to match. This scene regularly repeats itself across the country, whether it’s a $1 million heroin bust in Tennessee, a $150,000 takedown in Ohio, or the seizure of $20,000 of crack in Maine.

But what do those dollar amounts really mean? They’re supposed to indicate significance, or help the public to make sense of the raid. Too often, though, the numbers do more to obscure reality than represent it. Police employ a sort of magic math, and journalists let it slide. This is a symptom of a greater malady: Law enforcement is both a key player in the War on Drugs and the media’s go-to authority on the battlefield–a dual role that provides one biased newsmaker immense control over day-to-day coverage. 

“They’re usually giving you numbers that fit with whatever message line they’re trying to approach,” says Stephen Handelman, director of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College. “The figures themselves might be correct, but if you look at them a little more closely, they tell a totally different story.”


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One problem with reporting the value of impounded drugs is unavoidable: The Drug Enforcement Administration, which tracks pricing data, acknowledges that the practice is complex and the results fluid. A batch’s level of purity, where it’s meant to be sold, and a dealer’s place in the drug trade hierarchy all affect its total worth. That’s not to say cops are in the business of making wild guesses; the circumstances that force an economy underground also make it difficult to chart. Conversely, in states where recreational marijuana is legal, price monitoring is akin to following the going rate for corn.

The veil of the black market gives cops room to exaggerate their victories. The government publishes both some current and historical data on pricing, though it’s far from all-encompassing. Journalists can call upon just a few academics and experts to confirm a dollar amount–and the knowledge base of those sources is mostly geared toward the national level, which means little to a small-town bust in the sticks. “Law enforcement probably has a better idea roughly of what the price on the street is,” says Rocco Parascandola, police bureau chief for the New York Daily News. Unless a reporter’s rolodex bears the names of a few drug dealers, the path often ends there. 

Law enforcement officials whip up questionable calculations in the blurry space between wholesale and retail prices. A kilo of heroin, for instance, commands a higher price when sold in individual $10 bags, as opposed to larger, dealer-friendly quantities. The difference, notes criminologist Peter Reuter of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center, can be as much as fivefold. Newsworthy busts tend to hit mid- and high-level dealers, whose product is destined for the wholesale market. When police assign the street value to these big seizures, the numbers don’t reflect the money the suspect actually lost (the preferred measure of the DEA). At best, it’s a rough estimate of the cash the drugs would have brought in after several rounds of sales and chemical makeovers. At worst, it’s a stab in the dark, as described in this excellent article on inflated drug values and the misinformation surrounding LSD prices. 



None of this excuses poor reporting by the media. “It’s our responsibility as journalists to try to parse out those figures,” says John Jay’s Handelman, “to get past that fog and to see what those figures actually mean.” Just as it’s the job of law enforcement officials to trumpet their accomplishments–as disingenuous as trumping them up may be–it’s the job of journalists to cut through the spin and inform their readers. That mission requires context.

Coverage of the three drug busts mentioned above fell short of that mark. A Tennessee NBC affiliate’s report on a $1 million heroin seizure began by mentioning the dollar amount, in a move conceivably made to capture the attention of viewers. The monetary value, which was attributed to the local district attorney’s office, presumably would have come from the sale of 50,000 individual doses. Here’s the problem: The heroin was packaged in bulk, not for retail, so the street value was more conjecture than fact. Just look at competitors’ stories, which pegged the worth at $250,000, or “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

It’s common for journalists to pass on this distorted math, as they recently have in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Alabama.

More egregious is when journalists report drug values without any indication as to how they reached a particular number. The Bangor Daily News in Maine did just that in January, after police claimed to confiscate $20,000 worth of crack. So did Baltimore’s news radio station WBAL, in its report on a supposed $400,000 raid. Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate also failed to explain the math behind a $150,000 drug bust this week. “While we aim to have a skeptical eye toward government officials and police, the reality is this was a brief story, and we had no reason to believe the information provided by law enforcement was incorrect,” the station’s Web editor tells CJR via email. 

Quick hits still call for detail. Part of the problem is that all of the media troops descend on drug bust press conferences, and law enforcement offers up much of the same information to everyone. The race to publish early and loudly may deter journalists from taking deeper dives.

Never mind that news outlets have an incentive to slap grandiose dollar amounts in the headlines. The total weight of a seizure is a fact, but its financial worth carries a certain sexiness. “That plays into it,” says the Daily News’ Parascandola. “We are selling papers, but more than that, people can relate to [dollar amounts] more than they can relate to the actual weight.” He says his writers work to verify the official figures, but their priority is to determine the accused’s side of the story and standing in the drug game.



True, there are bigger questions here: How did the alleged operation affect the neighborhood? Was the suspect a kingpin? Does this sweep rid the block of crime, at least temporarily? But those inquiries beckon murkier answers that demand an even greater level of context. Once defense lawyers agree to talk, the spin comes from both sides. But reporters who don’t understand the building blocks of a case aren’t set up to tackle everything else.

Newspapers have printed estimated drug values since at least the 1920s. A sprint through the archives of The New York Times dredges up stories on seizures of Prohibition-era booze and drugs that were valued at $75,000 in 1920, $1.5 million in 1924, and $750,000 in 1927. The legacy may well go back further, to attempts to control the opium trade at the turn of the 19th century. But this historical journalistic convention doesn’t validate reporting that ignores due diligence.

Experts and crime reporters are split on the best path forward. Some say shoe-leather reporting into the math solves the problem, while others advocate relying only on physical weight. “I don’t think you’re doing the reader who isn’t familiar with the drug trade any real favors by giving it a staggering dollar amount that is, factually, practically meaningless,” says The Times’ Michael Wilson, who writes a weekly column on crime. At least one expert says there’s no solution to law enforcement’s near-monopoly on information regarding the War on Drugs. The police, after all, are journalists’ first step in even learning of an arrest.

What’s clear is that skeptical, thorough drug war reporting can leap from the occasional feature story to the everyday news cycle. Look no further than how journalists have in recent years covered addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. That shift required the media to push an intellectual reset button–and the changing views of prosecutors and police alone didn’t do the job. The question that remains: Aside from distorted drug values, how else is the lopsided stream of information on drugs affecting the larger conversation?

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha