SOLOMON: Assessing Damages: What About the Media?

Multibillion-dollar settlements have made big news lately. Some major industries are under pressure to admit the harm done by deceptive claims -- such as ads about the joys of smoking or assurances about the safety of silicone breast implants. Focusing on public health and product liability, the news coverage leaves the impression that the nation's media are innocent bystanders. But that's hardly the case. Our society is dealing with dire consequences of the mass media's repeated messages and images. For instance: * Many magazines and newspapers continue to publish full- page cigarette ads that glamorize smoking. But few media outlets do more than mention dry statistics on tobacco's effects. How often have you seen grisly news photos or close-up TV footage of a smoker with an advanced stage of lung cancer? Or an in-depth story about what it's like to go through that illness? * Although smoking has become less visible on television, it is now routine in many of the most widely marketed movies. According to a study at the University of California in San Francisco, half of the films put out from 1990 to 1995 showed a main character smoking -- up from 29 percent during the 1970s. Whether it's Julia Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding," Brad Pitt in "Sleepers," Arnold Schwarzenegger in "True Lies" or an angelic John Travolta in "Michael," the big stars are puffing away -- and the big movie studios are encouraging them to do so. * Avid news readers and TV viewers are likely to know more about Madonna's sex life than safe sex.With rare exceptions, the mainstream media are still unwilling to provide detailed information about how to prevent AIDS. The same networks airing steamy prime-time TV scenes turn suddenly prudish when rejecting requests for straightforward public service spots about the proper use of a condom. * For decades now, glorified images of svelte women have coincided with an epidemic of eating disorders. Media propaganda that equates thinness with desirability has a lot to do with the frequent occurrences of anorexia and bulimia among American girls and women. This, too, should be understood as a public health issue.The media emphasis on stereotyped versions of beauty is pervasive. Who women are as people gets less attention than how they look. No wonder the self-esteem of so many girls plummets when they reach adolescence, with many destructive results. * Children's TV programs include commercials that push soda pop and "energy drinks" heavily laden with sugar and caffeine. Ad campaigns for many other junk-food products also set a sugary hook for young consumers.Years of denunciations have finally led to the announced retirement of cartoonish Joe Camel. But where are the demands to protect America's kids from the cute brand-name mascots that hawk everything from candy to beer?* Sports events on television are especially thick with beer commercials, and neither TV networks nor local stations are balking. The woozy message is clear: People have a great time when they're drinking.These days, some lavishly produced Budweiser ads feature youthful party-goers who appear to be well on their way to getting drunk. One personable young man crawls around on the floor searching for bottle caps that can be redeemed for neat prizes. It's a great promo for beer -- and alcoholism. What's really at stake here cannot be measured in monetary terms. The most severe damage has no price tag. Who among us knows no one affected by cigarette-linked cancer, serious eating disorders or heavy drinking? And how are we to count the costs? No, the news media and the entertainment business aren't responsible for all those ills. But they are effectively promoting some major risk factors. And we're hearing very little acknowledgment of that grim reality.

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