Unlikely Bedfellows: Media Literacy and Anti-Drug Education

Teachers who visited the federal anti-drug website recently, theantidrug.com, 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 Policy.'"

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 U.S. 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 use.

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 evil 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, Amherst, "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 www.hyperreal.com or www.lycaeum.com).

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 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 nightmare.

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, Calif. who has written for Alternet's youth media partner WireTapmag.org, "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 seventeen 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.

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.

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