Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Utah's High Teen Binge Drinking Rate Is Really a Low Binge Drinking Rate

News corporations like to foster the perception that they are all about objectivity and truth. In fact, all news organizations operate with a profit motive just like any other corporation. They slant, twist, embellish, and selectively report matters in ways designed to help them achieve greater profit. This is true as well for "nonprofit news organizations" that simply measure profit in in non-monetary terms.

A good example of sensationalistic misreporting was published in an AP News article published by the Standard Examiner under the title Less Utah teens drink booze, but those who do drink more.

We soon learn that this conclusion is drawn from a nationwide survey of high school seniors asking whether they drank alcohol in the last month and whether they engaged in binge drinking in the last month. But the shoddy reporting tells us nothing about how many teens were surveyed, the survey methodology, who commissioned the study (only that it was recently presented to Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control), the margin of error, or whether the survey has a history so as to reveal trends. Without this information you really know nothing about the validity of the numbers reported.

We learn in paragraph three that "of those Utah seniors who reported drinking, 72 percent said they had been binge drinking in the past month. That's significantly higher than the national average of 55 percent." That sounds pretty bad.

But wait. In paragraph two we learned that 17% of surveyed Utah high school seniors said that had drunk alcohol in the last month, compared to the national average of 40%. Let's apply some math to see how that actually works out.

U.S.: 40% * 55% = 22.00%

Utah: 17% * 72% = 12.24%

In other words, the national average of high school seniors that engage in binge drinking is nearly double Utah's rate. But the editor and the reporter chose to give the numbers a bad slant rather than a good slant. Why not? Sensationalism sells. I keep hearing Don Henley's 1982 song Dirty Laundry going through my head.

Of course, it could be that journalists are just bad at math. Or that teen binge drinking does not vary in direct proportion to teen alcohol consumption. Or that Utah high school seniors lie about their drinking habits at a higher rate than the national average. Self reporting is a notoriously faulty method of data gathering. But the numbers reported are not out of line with Utah's observable overall low rate of alcohol consumption, which most researchers feel is closely tied to social and cultural factors.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for news corporations to truly report straight news. Doing so generally runs counter to their ideological, financial, and power motives. But it pays to be aware of this so that one can better balance the 'news' that comes their way.

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