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July 19th, 2006 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Reading Between The Lines

     
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Four months after a WW cover story criticized The Oregonian's coverage of the meth problem ("Meth Madness," WW, March 22, 2006), the Portland daily has responded in print.

Sunday's lead editorial states that "no apologies are necessary" in the "fight against meth," and goes on to write, "We've been reluctant to respond to the tinny little chorus of media critics...who claim this newspaper and others have cooked up the nation's methamphetamine problem."

The editorial never names the chief offenders. But WW seems a likely target, considering what Oregonian enterprise editor Steve Engelberg posted on a media website (www.poynter.org/forum/view_post.asp?id=11245) the day after the original story.

In that response, Engelberg called WW's story "a one-sided, intellectually dishonest, fake exposé...filled with hyperbole, sloppy reporting and the use of intentionally misleading statistics."

The Oregonian's newer print rebuttal is more measured, saying it's important "that the public and policymakers not lose sight of the fundamental point of The Oregonian's reporting—notably by reporter Steve Suo—which is that the meth trade can be disrupted because of its reliance on legal chemicals, which can be controlled."

WW's cover story did not fault Suo's findings, which broke ground on the international meth supply chain in a five-part October 2004 series.

Rather, the story questioned the paper's reporting and conclusions about the extent of the "meth epidemic" (a term it used in 91 of 261 stories on meth between October 2004 and March 2006). WW also found that The Oregonian, in several cases, published inaccurate or misleading statistics.

Because the Sunday editorial did not address any of WW's specific findings, we recap them here:

Contrary to several stories and editorials printed in The Oregonian, national meth use during the past four years has either declined or stayed flat, according to national studies.

To demonstrate a continued rise in meth use, The Oregonian relied heavily on treatment statistics. WW's story pointed to problems with such data, including the fact that an increasing reliance on drug courts has driven up the number of people seeking treatment.

The total number of drug users has not risen in recent years, suggesting to experts that any long-term increase in the number of meth users represents people switching from one drug to another.

The Oregonian claims there are 1.4 million users of meth, a stat referring to the number of people who report having used meth at least once in the last year. Drug abuse experts say a more accurate estimate of regular users is less than 600,000, the number of people who report using meth in the past month.

The Oregonian wrote several stories linking meth to 85 percent of all state property crime, a statistic with no basis in data, and which criminology experts say is most likely untrue. Similarly, The Oregonian stated that meth drove more than half of all foster-care cases in the state, another statistic that cannot be backed up by data.


Editor's Note: To read WW's original story, which was praised in a report last month by the Sentencing Project, a D.C. think tank, go to www.wweek.com/editorial/3220/7368/.
 
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