The Deconstruction of a Drug Crisis: Media Coverage of Drug Issues during the 1996 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

The 1996 U.S. presidential campaign represents an unusual and important case for research on the social construction of drug problems. Presidential candidate Robert Dole and other prominent politicians made dramatic claims about a growing teenage "drug crisis" based on supportive evidence from several national surveys. However, these claims were often ignored and even criticized by the news media. This paper examines how and why journalists responded so differently to this putative crisis than they did to earlier drug crises, such as the media "feeding frenzy" about crack cocaine in the 1980s. An analysis of news stories, political statements, and editorial commentary that appeared in major news outlets during 1995 and 1996 reveals a number of tactics that media workers employed to deconstruct politicians' claims and to frame the drug issue as an election-year strategy rather than as an authentic crisis.


Anti-drug campaigns in the United States have been fertile terrain for theoretical and empirical work on the social construction of public problems. Starting with Becker's (1963) account of Harry Anslinger's entrepreneurial role in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act and Gusfield's (1963) analysis of the symbolic politics of the Prohibition Movement, numerous studies have shown how claims-makers in government, in social movements, and in the mass media collaborated in the construction of a series of "drug crises" over the past century (Goode & Ben- Yehuda, 1994; Musto, 1999; Reinarman, 2006).

The mid-to-late 1980s was an especially fruitful period for constructionist research on drug problems. Even though national surveys indicated that most forms of drug use were declining during this period, these years were marked by unprecedented levels of public and political concern over an "epidemic" of cocaine use among American adolescents. Subsequently, researchers and commentators focused on how media "hype" - intense and sensationalistic claims-making activity by journalists - created the conditions for a moral panic about teenage drug use (Diamond, Accosta, & Thornton, 1987; Goode & Ben- Yehuda, 1994; Jensen, Gerber, & Babcock, 1991; Orcutt & Turner, 1993; Reinarman & Levine, 1989a, 1989b). Beginning in 1986, press coverage of drug issues increased dramatically with news articles and broadcasts routinely characterizing the crack cocaine problem as a "crisis," "epidemic," or "plague" (Chiricos, 1996; Reinarman & Levine, 1989a; Shoemaker, 1989). Politicians capitalized on heightened concerns about drug issues, and the "War on Drugs" became a dominant theme in election campaigns and in federal legislation through the rest of the decade. In general, constructionist analyses of this period have reinforced a view of drug crises as collaborative claims-making activity in which political leaders and, "media organizations [work] in unison to promote fears of drug abuse" (Glassner, 1999, p. 131; also see Best, 1999; Reinarman, 2006).

However, in this paper we examine a subsequent episode of claims-making activity that contrasts in important ways with the cocaine epidemic of the 1 980s and leads to quite a different view of political and media work on drug crises. Over the course of the 1 996 U.S. presidential campaign, a number of prominent politicians - most notably, Republican nominee Robert Dole - engaged in a well-financed and widely-publicized effort to define teenage drug use as a serious national crisis. Furthermore, significant increases in survey estimates of drug use during the early 1990s provided a rich empirical resource for claims about a growing teenage chug problem. Yet, as we will show in our analysis of national news stories about drug issues during the mid-1990s, the intense "hype" and sensationalism of a decade earlier was virtually absent from media coverage of this putative crisis. Instead, the news media employed a variety of critical techniques to deconstruct politicians' claims and to frame the drug issue as a political strategy rather than as an authentic crisis. …