Press Box

Journalists on Drugs

A free pamphlet about illicit pharmaceuticals that every reporter should download.

Where do most people get their information about drugs? From the press. And where does the press get its information? Primarily from other misinformed journalists, lazy cops, grieving parents, clueless drug counselors, spurious Web sites, and gibbering druggies. By indulging their worst class biases, by following their newsman instincts to hype the sensational or dramatic aspects of the story, by giving in to fear and ignorance, journalists keep their readers in the dark about drugs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Newspapers could establish drug beats and fill them with reporters as eager to learn about Mexican tar as budding financial reporters are to understand the workings of the Fed. Press organizations that say they can’t afford a drug-beat reporter could at least invest in a few reference works to help their staff cover illicit drug use. One of my favorites, Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs From Alcohol to Ecstasy, is now in its third edition. Thanks to the work of one enterprising soul, the entire text of the 1972 classic Licit and Illicit Drugs is on the Web. Although dated in spots, it’s still a solid and valuable overview of the drug universe.

For news desks pleading complete poverty, the U.K. charity DrugScope has produced a free pamphlet (PDF) titled The Media Guide to Drugs: Key Facts and Figures for Journalists, which serves up 140-pages of basic, nonhysterical information about drugs and drug law. Although U.K.-centric, especially in its legal references, the pamphlet’s contents are easily translatable to the American scene.

Guardian media blogger Roy Greenslade, who hypes the pamphlet today, also contributed a blurb for its cover that’s worth reproducing in full. He writes:

I have despaired over the years about the hysterical and ill informed way in which the media, most especially the largest-selling popular newspapers, report on the subject of drugs. Journalists are too ready to accept myths and, by passing them on, contribute to yet further myth-making by their readers. By reacting emotionally rather than rationally to the topic, and by denying reality, newspapers do a disservice to society. This guide will surely help the next generation of journalists because it deals with facts that counter ignorance and prejudice. I believe it will prove invaluable.

The Media Guide to Drugs doesn’t pretend to be the final authority on drugs like, say, The Physicians’ Desk Reference, but as a place to launch an open-minded journalistic inquiry into drugs, their effects, and the drug laws. The pamphlet’s A-Z guide to the most prevalent drugs eschews hysteria in favor of cold facts and presents accurate timelines for each drug discussed.

I’m not as enthusiastic about the pamphlet’s pointers on how journalists should cover drug stories as I’d like to be. In my experience, most drug journalism falters because the reporters and editors behind the stories don’t ask the skeptical and probing questions they would if they were covering a business or political story. They don’t question the numbers the drug warriors give them or the anecdotal accounts of users. They don’t look for authoritative information in the medical literature or in academia. They don’t even bother to consult Nexis, which contains brilliant articles (not just mine!) that tell the truth about drug-related death, meth-mouth, pot potency, glue sniffing, and more. 

But those are quibbles. In a Q&A section, The Media Guide to Drugs smartly implores reporters to ask the essential questions when writing their stories, such as, “What happens when someone takes more than one drug at a time?” and “Why do some people respond so differently to the same drug?” and “Can you become instantly dependent on a drug?” It counsels journalists to seek drug statistics from reliable sources, but even then to be skeptical of data that are under-reported or make unsupportable claims. The sources the pamphlet points to are all British, of course, but any reporter with a Web browser can find their U.S. equivalents with the help of Google.

Those who cover the police, the courts, popular culture, or the legislative and administrative machines should keep a copy of The Media Guide to Drugs for quick reference. It presents more debunking of facts, encourages more sensible doubt, and kills more dangerous preconceptions than any sized volume. Download it. Now.


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