A new study out of Rutgers University, led by Olivia A. Wackowski, provides more evidence that mainstream media stories about vaping are negatively biased. The researchers collected all news and opinion pieces published by the leading American news outlets in 2015. They reported that the coverage skewed negative. In particular, the ostensible experts that were interviewed make inaccurate claims about health risks from vaping.
The primary focus of about half of the 295 articles they reviewed was about the regulation of e-cigarettes or other policy issues, which is not surprising given this was the period leading up to the FDA deeming regulation. Most of the others focused on health effects or usage prevalence.
Even the topics covered demonstrate the press’s anti-vaping bias. Almost half of the articles mentioned the prevalence of usage among youth, while only 10 percent noted the prevalence among adults. A third of the articles talked about flavor options, and most of these were presenting the “kid-friendly flavors” trope. Similarly, about 40 percent talked about age-of-purchase regulations, presumably emphasizing that FDA regulation would impose this even though almost every state already had such laws on the books.
More troubling, only a third of the articles mentioned that vaping is less harmful than smoking, and only a quarter noted that it was an effective way to quit smoking. Meanwhile, a large portion of articles presented unsupportable claims about health risk. A third of the articles falsely suggested that vaping is a gateway to smoking, while only a handful noted the evidence does not support this claim.
The worst bias, though, appeared in the attribution of various claims. Of the statements about health effects attributed to physicians or researchers, 113 were negative and only 52 were positive, including only 31 that acknowledged that vaping poses lower risk than smoking. Government representatives presented even worse bias, with 80 negative claims about health impacts and only 15 positive ones.
Telling the truth about vaping was left to industry, consumer advocates, and “civilian” vapers. These interviewees overwhelmingly cited the benefits of vaping, in particular the comparative risk. But, of course, these sources are (incorrectly) viewed as less credible than government officials or public health academics. Moreover, though the researchers did not report looking at this, it is likely that most of this information appeared late in the article in the throwaway “but some say…” passages that few readers take seriously.
Wackowski et al.’s article offers a refreshing contrast to typical public health papers. It is a proper scientific report on their findings, without tangential commentary or conclusions. They properly leave it to the reader to assess what the results mean. The assessment is clear to anyone who understands the truth about vaping, and the surrounding politics: The media is dutifully endorsing the anti-vaping messages that those in power wish to convey. As is often the case, supposedly neutral “he says, she says” reporting, which defers to the government and government-funded advocates, uncritically conveys a false message.