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Kicking television news

On Monday night, I tuned in to CTV BC to watch an investigative story by Mi-Jung Lee about the prominence of study drugs on BC campuses. And frankly, the story was garbage.



By Nick Ubels (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 6, 2013

Image Sourced from CTV BC Broadcast - February 4, 2013

On Monday night, I tuned in to CTV BC to watch an investigative story by Mi-Jung Lee about the prominence of study drugs on BC campuses.

And frankly, the story was garbage.

In the three-minute clip, Lee implies that study drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall are on the rise on BC post-secondary campuses. Her evidence for this claim is a passing reference to “some studies” which indicate that “11 per cent of university students” have used or would consider using these concentration-enhancing stimulants. There are no studies focused on BC students and no indication as to whether the use of study drugs is on the rise or decline.

Lee’s other evidence is purely anecdotal: an anonymous interview with a fourth-year UBC student named “Paul” and an undercover conversation between a CTV intern and someone who claims to have used Adderall in the past. The report doesn’t include any follow-up questions enquiring what the drug was used for, whether its intended purpose was an ADHD treatment or a wakefulness enhancer. Rather than offer her drugs himself, he redirected her to the university health centre where he had received a prescription.

These sources do not indicate how widespread the use of study drugs is on BC campuses, nor do they show whether or not use is on the rise. Instead, Lee incites a moral panic about life on university campuses based on no concrete evidence. Adderall abuse is portrayed as a growing trend with little to back up this claim.

Stories like these only serve to hurt public opinion surrounding education funding.

Finally, Lee fleshed out her story with an interview meant to represent the views of the average student. That student was Samantha Lenz, billed on-air only as a University of the Fraser Valley student. What wasn’t said is that Lenz is also an intern at CTV BC.

This is lazy reporting at best and deliberately misleading at worst. It’s a conflict of interest to interview one of your own employees and Lee should know better. The fact that Lenz’ affiliation went unacknowledged on-air shows implicit understanding that this information would have ruined the interview’s credibility. Why didn’t Lee interview any other student passerby? The interview took place on UFV’s Abbotsford campus. It wasn’t a breaking story, but a feature, meaning there was plenty of time to secure another interview.

Part of my interest in Lee’s story was to see how CTV would handle an issue tackled by The Cascade’s Ali Siemens in November 2011. After all, we work in different mediums, and CTV is a professional news organization. On Tuesday, I re-read Siemens’ piece for The Cascade. It is better researched, better written and much more substantial than Lee’s featured story. And it was written by a novice journalist, not a TV news veteran.

You can find Lee’s story on the CTV website, with the misleading headline “Students turning to ‘campus crack’ to study.” First, “turning” implies that this is a practice that is increasing, which the clip does not provide evidence for. Second, the phrase “campus crack” is not uttered by anyone interviewed in the piece. It implies that study drugs are addictive, which is not addressed in the story either.

This is just one case where I was able to pinpoint a deliberate misrepresentation. But it undermines the organization’s trustworthiness. For years, television news has been derided by people like media critic Noam Chomsky as too focused on brevity to include alternative viewpoints, but this story proves that it’s too focused on drama and sensation to get the reporting fundamentals right either.

I don’t know about “campus crack,” but television news is a drug worth kicking.

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