Thursday, April 06, 2006

WWeek Reverse-Hypes Meth, And Does It Shoddily

For a while there, after the Willamette Week and Nigel Jaquiss won the Pulitzer for their great series on the Goldschmidt Affair*, and the Oregonian was struggling through their failure to report on the Goldschmidt Affair and their continuingly clumsy support for the Iraq War, it seemed as if the casual weekly had usurped The O as the city's most important paper.

To the extent that both papers are Betamaxes in the digital era of journalism, I nonetheless think WWeek is generally a more honest and unassuming paper of record, certainly more comfortable to read in my opinion. I'm sure the people at WWeek think it is, and that can spell trouble, lest they get cocky and overplay their hand.

The moment may have arrived. In the March 22nd issue, Angela Valdez supplied a cover story with big news about meth--or rather, big news about how the OTHER paper covered meth. See, The O did stage somewhat of a comeback with its meth series and eventual collaboration with OPB and Frontline. Did that give WWeek pique and result in what amounts to a cover story on metajournalism?

Can't say, but they sure thought they'd found something: The O was overheating the truth when it came to the meth epidemic. No, scratch that--they specifically charged the paper with "manufacturing" the epidemic. Essentially, they charged that The O was hyping its way to notoriety, and doing poor work in the process. That's a pretty big charge, and to put that on the cover reflects to me an editorial decision to intentionally stick it in The O's eye. So they sure better come correct with it, right? The only thing worse than a bad hype piece is a bad hack job on the competition.

I'm not a pharmacological expert, and I have no training in medicine. I do have some limited criminology experience, and I definitely understand social statistics, including substance abuse. And I think Valdez is reverse-hyping here--trying to make a story out of a story they think too much has been made of. (It's OK to go back and read that again. I'll be here). The specific charges raised are at best nitpickings or superficial charges, and do not fundamentally alter the editorial conclusions reached by The O. Moreover, the thinly veiled desire to play gotcha on the paper has moved WWeek to accept a gratutitous and unnecessary slice of meta-journalism for its cover.

Valdez opens by alleging that the The O suggested a growth in use and addiction when actual data shows a flat line at worst. She highlights the mentions of "epidemic," which don't speak to trends but extent, and then uses a Renee Mitchell column calling the trend "exploding." But that's a Mitchell column, not the series. In any case, the way Valdez tears down the addiction explosion theory supposedly advanced by The O is to cite high school self reports from a national survey. I have worked with the Monitoring the Future survey, which is a great tool for what it covers: high schoolers self-reporting their drug use. How does that put a number on addicts of all ages in Oregon? It doesn't.

Valdez does cite another national survey showing flat line use patterns, from 2002 through 2004. Her implication is that The O should have used this knowledge to temper their rhetoric. The problem is the series itself did not start until 2004, and as we are citing 2004 data in 2006, in 2004 the data would have been a couple of years old as well. She makes no mention of the period prior to 2002.

The O does have one indicator showing an increase of meth activity--treatment intakes. Here Valdez has a reasonable point; the trends in numbers of people seeking treatment for a drug is not always a tight correlation with numbers of addicts. It's not the indicator, but in a world where precise estimating tools are scarce, you accept the data you get. And Valdez admits that local treatment trends mirror national ones.

She next takes aim at the figure of 1.4 million, used in context by The O as "a potent stimulant now consumed by 1.4 million Americans from Oregon to the Carolinas." What's wrong with 1.4 million? Outdated data? Nope. Inaccurate figures or shoddy methodology? No. Valdez believes that The O wanted you to believe that 1.4 million Americans were out powerwashing their garage while hanging by bungee cord from a tree in their 3AM...while tweaked out on their 4th day in a row. What was their sin? Hiding from the public the fact that "consumed" in this case meant "had used in the last 12 months." This is not unusual; there are three typical levels I've found in addiction research: 30 days (addict and/or daily users); 1 year (occassional); and lifetime (experimental). The 1-year question is a nice middle ground, catching most current users broadly without snaring the one-timers.

WWeek then gets an expert witness to declare
[Multnomah County addiction-program director Ray Hudson] says it would be inaccurate to say all of the 1.4 million people who reported using meth in the past year are "users" or "addicts."
Where did The O say that? "Consumed" seems like a fairly artfully chosen word, in my opinion. In any case, does 600,000 hardcore meth addicts not impress us anymore? That's a good 40% of the people who've tried it, an addiction rate I imagine (but have no ready proof of) to be higher than all but crack and perhaps heroin.

Valdez' entire repertoire of reportage rapier is like this: stab quickly and blindly, make do with whatever flesh you've hit, and move on. The next item on her hitlist is the one that's probably the most substantive from a journalistic perspective, but even then she skips away without having damaged The O's fundamental premise. The issue revolves around how much petty property crime takes place as a direct result of meth addition. I think most people--certainly those like me who had their car broken into and had to hear Portland Police say it to them--have heard the statistic that 85% of property crime in Portland is due to the meth trade. The O cites it freely in its series, which Valdez seizes upon.

Except no one knows of any actual analysis that produced this number. At its root, the figure appears to be anecdotal field reports rather than case reviews. The number fluctuates between 80 and 90 percent, she says, but the bottom line is that "it's probably false." That's an odd conclusion to reach as you read the explanation. Where did The O get that number? From the guv'ner. Where did the guv'ner get it? They're not sure, but they know that they ran it by the state drug enforcement commander. How did he know? He asked some of his DA colleagues whether their experience backed up the figure, and they said it did--and it matched his experience.

So is that provenance good enough to make the 85% figure reliable? Probably not, and the O is ultimately responsible for vetting all of the numeric facts that go into their stories. On the other hand, when you're citing the goobernor, who's citing the drug enforcement head, that's not exactly uninformed opinion. What if it's 70%? Is that number fundamentally less shocking? And on what basis does Valdez call it "probably false?" Not fully known is not the same thing.

But the most callously nitpicky charge Valdez levels against The O is that they exploited stories of 'orphaned' children in order to hype their story on the phenomenon. She challenges the paper on their use of the word "study" to refer to data analysis done by DHS regarding meth-related foster care placements. As Valdez points out, there was no formalized study per se--just the head of DHS finding a 50% match between foster placements and meth treatment of the parents. Ah-HA! Valdez seems to exclaim. You're trying to pass off this one-shot Excel merge as some kind of study. You hypemonsters!

So here's exactly what The O wrote:
Last year, roughly 2,750 children—more than half of all foster cases—were taken from parents using or making the potent drug, the study found"
Valdez essentially grants both the 2,750 children and the 50% figure on a substantive basis, and zeroes in on the word "study." Would "analysis" or "review" have been more descriptive? Likely so--but how does that invalidate the conclusion? Once again a reputably expert source has provided empirical evidence--this time even using an objective analysis model--that Valdez cannot objectively refutre, but insists is flawed based on less-than-crystal diction. And here again, what do we make of the belittling of 2,700 Oregon kids at minimum living in households where Mom and Dad are tweaking (or more dangerously, cooking)? She gamely tries to pin on The O that they imply getting rid of meth will cut foster placements in half, but she'll have to show me where, and I suspect if she's reading this she's not in the mood anymore.

If there were a Downing Street Memo for the editorial meeting at WWeek giving Valdez the go-ahead for her story, I think it would note the Wall Street Journal and New York Times pieces on bad meth reporting, consider the redeeming accolades being once again bestowed on The O after their own meth story, and indicate the editors asking Valdez to fix the facts around the already-made decision to ram a quill pen up their skirts of their rival. The O's managing editor certainly wasn't impressed, although Slate's Jack Shafer and Reason mag's Julian Sanchez seemed to be. I'm sure it smarted at the time to get stabbed by a quill, but ink washes off...especially cheap ink.

*corrected to properly note what the Pulitzer was for...