If there is one thing that most people can rely on when it comes to modern media, it is that most news organizations almost reflexively lean toward the most sensational angle of any story. Sometimes that can lead news groups and individual reporters to unearth amazing stories that significantly contribute to the public’s understanding of important issues. At other times, however, it can cause whole media outlets to focus on precisely the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment in history – and thereby fail in their duty to educate and enlighten their readers and viewers. For some time now, the latter has been the case with respect to the portrayal of e-cigarettes in the media.
Why the Media Gets it Wrong
To hear the accounts presented in much of today’s media, most members of the public could be forgiven for assuming that vaping devices are dangerous tools that could be riskier than tobacco cigarettes. The problem with most of today’s newsrooms and even many newspapers comes down to a simply matter of economics. News relies on advertising to pay the bills. Advertisers expect people to see and read their ads. Most viewers, however, are drawn to the most sensational headlines. So, when you’re tuning into your local news broadcast – or even a national cable news source, what is most likely to draw your attention: a headline that says that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to tobacco or one that talks about hidden possible dangers?
You know the answer. Death, danger, and similarly provocative topics have an innate ability to attract our attention in much the same way that we are drawn to car accidents on the highway. Sensationalism sells, and reporting facts about product safety simply isn’t seen as sensational enough to generate viewership.
Of course, there’s more to it than even that basic explanation. Gathering news is an expensive proposition, so most news outlets are understandably careful about how they allocate limited investigative resources. Many rely on police reports for their crime reporting, for example. Reporters tend to lean toward that investigative model when they review scientific issues as well. That’s why you so often see news people turning to government officials when discussing matters concerning public health. Many of the earliest reports on vaping safety involved news reporters discussing the topic with people from the government. That invariably leads to newscasters simply parroting the official narrative. And in this case, that official line is just short of hostile.
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The internet has had an impact too. So-called “click-bait” sells in the internet age. Hyper-sensationalist and often misleading headlines draw eyeballs to web pages in ways that honest reporting often cannot. Sadly, many of the top professional mainstream news organizations have learned this lesson as well, and populate many of their online headlines with suggestive word choices and mischaracterizations of the stories presented on their sites. Sadly, however, misinformation on the internet spreads quickly, providing fodder for bloggers and research for other reporters. As a result, one bad piece of reporting can form the foundation for an erroneous narrative that quickly takes root throughout the media landscape.
The Media Narrative: As Risky as Tobacco
The current media narrative is almost shockingly contrary to what current scientific evidence suggests. That narrative holds that electronic cigarettes are virtually as dangerous as traditional combustible cigarettes. To support that viewpoint, news organizations rely upon statements and interviews with officials from various government agencies, spokespeople from groups like the CDC, and others with a direct interest in promoting the government line on vaping, some may even say that the health departments are against vaping all together!
For example, various television news stories have focused on the dangers associated with vaping devices. Those stories, however, routinely failed to mention the multitude of scientific studies which have concluded that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking tobacco. And when pinned down on the actual dangers, most of the so-called experts relied upon for these types of interviews can only rely on the dangers associated with ingesting or otherwise coming into contact with nicotine in its liquid form – something that has nothing to do with the actual act of vaping.
The Government Role in Promoting False Narratives
It would be easy to single out the media as being wholly irresponsible for this false narrative, but that would be unfair. The reality is that many of the reporters and anchors who provide these stories to the public are themselves wholly reliant upon information from people that they consider experts. When those experts provide false or misleading information, the reporting cannot help but be tainted by its source material.
When government officials and researchers are involved, the reason for such misleading information becomes a little easier to understand. For many at the highest levels of both state and national government, this new multi-billion dollar industry is seen as a powerful new source for potential tax revenue. The current Congress has resisted efforts to enact punitive taxes on these products, however, and that has forced some officials to seek other ways to gain access to this revenue source. Enter the regulator.
By deeming electronic cigarettes as tobacco for regulatory purposes, the government is able to implement and apply tobacco regulations and taxes to vaping products. To justify that, they have only to convince a large enough segment of the media and public that electronic cigarettes are somehow bad for people – or at least risky enough to be worthy of tighter controls.
The Bottom Line
It is imperative for smokers and other adults to be discriminating when it comes to what they choose to believe. The media has a useful role within any free society, and the public is reliant upon media resources for much of the news that it needs to make sound decisions on a daily basis. Where the best electronic cigarettes are concerned, though, it is perhaps wise policy to view media reports with more than just a little skepticism.