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Addicted to Tobacco Stories: A One-Sided Portrayal of a Risky Product

Executive Summary

Reporters consider most risky products newsworthy, but tobacco gets far more coverage than any other risky product, including such illegal drugs as cocaine and marijuana. This is one conclusion of a special year-long, two-part study of news coverage of risky products. The study, conducted by the Media Research Center's Free Market Project, analyzes network morning and evening news shows between August 1, 1995 and July 31, 1996. The study found:

  • Tobacco as a risk problem is overemphasized.

    Tobacco and smoking were the subject of 413 news stories, compared to 136 stories for obesity/fatty foods, 94 for auto safety, and 58 for alcohol. Tobacco even drew more coverage than cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana combined, which were the subjects of 340 stories.

  • The media have allowed the Clinton Administration to use tobacco as a political weapon.

    President Clinton was the driving force behind a good deal of the tobacco news. Eighty-five stories focused on his efforts to regulate tobacco. Only 45 of the stories about illegal drugs mentioned Clinton, and almost all of these references were positive.

  • There is a double standard in coverage of tobacco as a political issue.

    Jack Kemp's flip-flops on affirmative action and immigration were noted in five evening news stories during the 1996 Republican Convention. Al Gore's tobacco flip-flop -- politically exploiting his sister's smoking-related death after having boasted in 1988 about his tobacco farming history -- didn't receive any evening news coverage during the Democratic Convention.

  • Anti-tobacco sources far exceed pro-tobacco sources in terms of both quality and quantity.

    Reporters ran soundbites from 270 anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources, compared to 116 from pro-tobacco/anti-regulation sources. They also gave anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources the last word in 132 stories, compared to only 40 for the other side.

Recommendations:

Reporters should be skeptical of both the tobacco industry and anti-smoking activists. Currently, they are skeptical of only one side -- the tobacco industry. And they should ask themselves: Is tobacco really more important and newsworthy than illegal drugs?