Pubdate: Wed, 17 Apr 2002
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2002 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Author: Maia Szalavitz
Note: Maia Szalavitz is co-author of Recovery Options: The Complete 
Guide, How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol 
and Other Drug Problems.


Teachers who visited the federal anti-drug website recently,, found some unusual suggestions for drug prevention. 
Just after the drug czar's $3.5 million advertisement linking drug 
use to terrorism premiered at the Superbowl, the site featured a link 
to a report about a conference held at the White House last summer on 
how to use media literacy techniques to keep kids off drugs.

Now, the site's teachers' guide section includes links to two other 
media literacy lesson plans sponsored by the drug czar's office: 
Media Literacy for Drug Prevention with the New York Times, posted in 
February, and Anti-Drug Education with the New York Times, developed 
last year.

There is, unsurprisingly, an inherent conflict when a government 
agency partners with media to do "anti-drug education" -- as the 
Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) found to its dismay 
two years ago, when its behind-the-scenes deal to pay for politically 
correct content in TV shows and articles was exposed.

This should have been an object lesson in the perils of having a 
skeptical audience that critiques sources and their objectivity. The 
Times countered that suggestion with this statement: "Sponsorship 
from a government agency to run an ad or create a supplement is 
acceptable, as long as it is clear that the ad or the supplement is 
sponsored by the government agency. These curricula were clearly 
marked as 'Developed by The New York Times Newspaper in Education 
Program with sponsorship from the Office of National Drug Control 

Ironically, the enterprise may hold real promise for drug education 
- -- just not in the way the government -- and possibly the New York 
Times -- intends.

The idea of educating young people to look at media critically took 
hold in the US in the 1970s, with support largely coming from 
progressive educators. Now techniques like deconstructing ads to show 
how corporations influence consumers are so widespread that they are 
used by health educators seeking to prevent drinking and cigarette 

This has proved to be one of the most effective methods yet to reduce 
teen smoking. Research shows that the most effective anti-smoking 
media campaigns are those in which the ads themselves incorporate 
lessons torn from the pages of left media literacy and attack Big 
Tobacco for false and misleading advertising.

Using such techniques to fight illegal drugs, however, raises some 
problems that anti-smoking campaigns don't face. Says Sut Jhally, 
Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts, 
"Given that there's not a lot of representation of illicit drug use 
in media (and certainly not in advertising), I'm not sure what you 
would be deconstructing." One approach suggested at the White House 
conference is to have kids deconstruct "pro-drug" websites (as 
examples it gives or

This presents some risks, however, some of which are mentioned in the 
report. The authors recognize that some (probably a small) percentage 
of kids may not previously have known how to access alternative 
sources of drug information -- such material is often screened by the 
filters used by schools and some parents.

But beyond worrying about simple exposure, the media lit lessons from 
the White House conference and those developed by the New York Times 
offer no suggestions about what to do if the kids find the 
descriptions of drug use on such sites or in movies and TV more in 
line with their own experiences than the negative consequences 
depicted by official anti-drug information.

The conference report goes on to suggest, among other exercises, that 
youth compare and contrast two different points of view about 
marijuana and find sites that celebrate marijuana and sites that 
condemn it. Another exercise asks students to provide one or two key 
facts and myths (e.g., rumors, incomplete story about a drug's health 
consequences) about illegal drug use and invites them to see how 
frequently these are presented on Internet web sites.

Says Seeta Pena Gangadharan, policy director for the Media Channel, 
"What struck me at first glance on reading about the conference was 
that it seems that ONDCP comes in with the assumption that kids, 
parents and educators will naturally believe that the anti-drug 
message is always right."

Since media literacy education provides kids with a healthy 
skepticism and skills such as how to check sources for accuracy, 
analyze persuasive techniques, and know the agenda of the source, 
what's to stop kids from deconstructing anti-drug rhetoric? If they 
are taught that all advertisers have an agenda, what's to keep them 
from looking critically at what the government presents as the truth 
in its ads? And why assume that kids will find the anti-marijuana 
position more compelling?

An educator's dream is to have kids apply critical thinking across 
contexts -- but for the drug czar's office, this could well be a 

The commercials linking drugs and terror, for example, already have 
even those kids who are committed to not using drugs laughing. Jhally 
reports that his college students found them amusing, not convincing.

Said Kim Cutler, 17, a high school student from Cupertino, CA, who 
has written for Alternet's youth media partner, "One 
paragraph on the drugs/terror website I found really funny. It said 
'Drug traffickers and terrorists use similar methods to achieve their 
criminal ends. Most importantly, they share a common disregard for 
human life.'"

The portentous, over-the-top language might convince "pre- 
adolescents," Cutler said, "But when you are 17 you have pretty much 
established a lot of views."

"I do have some background in media literacy," she added. "I 
understand that different groups have different agendas and I can see 
both sides but I had already decided that I'm not going to do drugs."

Joe, 16, from West Virginia, who asked that his real name not be 
used, said, "I saw the Superbowl ads and I thought they were kind of 
horrible and pretty scary. But they never came out with anything that 
backed it up."

Joe has tried the drug most commonly used by teens, marijuana (which 
has no association with foreign terrorists since it is overwhelmingly 
domestically grown). He never used it again, however, because he 
decided independently that smoking pot wasn't for him. "I prize my 
own intellect and dignity and I think that drugs lower them if you 
become addicted or do it a lot."

Joe thinks the government needs to be more honest if it wants to 
reach kids. "It would be better for them to admit that marijuana is 
less harmful than heroin," he says. His parents were honest with him 
about their own marijuana use in the 1960s, he says and he believes 
part of why he doesn't take drugs is because they were truthful in 
how they discouraged it. He adds that he thinks the anti-smoking ads 
work because there is solid evidence to back them.

Says Robert Kubey, Associate Professor and Director, Center for Media 
Studies, Rutgers University and a participant in the White House 
media literacy conference, "You can't let the media literacy genie 
out of the bottle and heighten kids' sensitivity and critical 
faculties and have them only apply that to what you want them to 
apply it to."

The drug czar's office (which did not return calls for comment) may 
believe that it is being open and honest about the facts on drugs but 
kids' reactions to its ads suggest otherwise.

At a recent National Institute on Drug Abuse seminar on media 
coverage of addiction, Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president at 
MTV, said none of their research suggests that kids will buy into 
scare tactics like those used in the drug/terror campaign. Years of 
research by academics backs him up.

So perhaps a new, media-literate generation could force the 
government to be more honest about drugs -- and help spur a 
long-needed debate about the most effective drug policy. I'm not sure 
at all that this is the result the drug czar's office intends. But 
then I suppose my own media literacy prompts me to be cynical about 
government agencies, particularly this one.
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