Barriga is the name given to the information mistakes made by the press. Researching and writing about drugs for various vehicles in the country, I had the misfortune to witness dozens, perhaps hundreds of errors of the most varied types in coverage on the subject. Could. The drug issue is one of the most complex issues a journalist can cover. Some mistakes are fruit of bad faith and attempts to misinform the population, something relatively common in a subject so disputed ideologically. But most of the mistakes are just the result of lack of time and reliable sources in the rush of writing. So I wrote last year the book Guide to Drugs for Journalists, upon request from the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy. The book is a glossary of important terms for coverage on the topic, to help the journalist who needs to quickly learn a concept not to write a blunder in the news you read. The following is an adaptation of what I wrote for the introduction of the book: the story of how the press invented the oxy, a drug that never existed.
THE PRESS DOES NOT REHAB
“A devastating threat spreading across the country.” This was the headline of one of the largest newspapers in Brazil on a Sunday in April 2011. “Derived from cocaine and more lethal than crack cocaine, Oxi destroys young people and children in Acre” , said the subtitle. According to the special envoy to Rio Branco, the new drug is a rock, like crack. “The difference is it’s cheaper and kills faster,” because it’s made of virgin lime and gasoline. “In a few weeks, it leads to weight loss and loss of teeth,” and the user “turns yellow.” The focus of the report was police, with information about the traffic on the borders of Acre and in squares of Rio Branco.
A morning news story summed up the fear. “Óxi may be closer to São Paulo.” But it was the prime time news program to re-echo the appalling symptoms of the substance “more harmful than crack.” Newspapers, magazines, websites, much of the press reverberated the agenda. After all, it was a new and frightening drug that emerged from the heart of the jungle, threatening to reach urban centers and spread like an ebola virus. The history of the ox was sensational. It was a movie, it was impossible not to make a suite.
But the thing was serious. And instead of becoming a movie, it ended up in Brasilia. On June 7, less than two months after the drug “debuted” in the national press, Congressman Father Ton (PT-RO) convened the public hearing “Óxi and other drugs in the Legal Amazon.” In an interview with an important magazine’s website, he said worried: “The advance of drugs is one of the scourges of our times.” At its second session, on June 28, the audience had an exposition of Adriano Otávio Maldaner, a chemical expert and head of the Laboratory of Forensic Chemistry of the National Institute of Criminalistics – the largest “CSI” drug authority in Brazil.
The expert presented the result of the analysis of 20 samples of “oxy” seizures made by the Civil Police in the capital and in several citadels of the Acre designated as route of the drug. Maldaner was categorical: “I can not say there is a new drug”  . Of the total samples, 30% could not even be smoked – it was cocaine powder  . The rest was crack or base paste. The laboratory of the Federal Police (PF) still tested the samples for the presence of solvents and virgin lime -which the press reported were ingredients of the devastating mix of oxy. No sample had more of these substances than the crack samples seized by PF, used in the study for comparison. The chemical profile of oxy-stones was, in all, the same as crack.
“Of all that came here theoretically as oxy, nothing was oxy,” concluded the forensic scientist. Everything that had been said about substance in the press – its concentration, its composition, its very existence – was invention, rumor, assumptions that could not withstand the slightest scrutiny. Passed neat, the oxy’s story was not sensational. It was just sensationalism. Bad news.
There was no cover letter on the second session of the public hearing or on the PF’s expertise. No major news came to deny the story of the “new” drug – not even a typo. Despite the unpopularity in the media, Maldaner’s study and his team of scientists fulfilled their function: to stop a wave of sensationalism that spread with “alarmist and imprecise news”  about a drug that did not even exist.
The history of the oxy is a good example of how the press decisively and urgently influences national public opinion and policy, in this case on the specific theme of drugs. Unfortunately, it is also emblematic of the unpreparedness, neglect and even prejudice with which Brazilian journalism often addresses the issue. An analysis by the News Agency for Children’s Rights in 2005 on reports from 74 media outlets showed that 28% of them associate the issue with violence and crime and treat sporadic and dependent users in the same pejorative way as “drunks, drugged ” . According to the authors, the reports “contribute to misinformation”, stimulating social stigma and hampering health actions. Another study on the subject, published in 2006, concluded that “the results confirm a mismatch between press and epidemiology, as well as the superficiality with which such a complex subject is treated”  .
In the decade of 2010, there are some advances. With the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay and the United States, and the evident failure of public safety in traffic control, the vehicles began to devote more pages on the drug policy debate. Moreover, from 2014 onwards, the medical marijuana issue has gained a broad and unique space – it is one of the rare guidelines that does not treat an illicit drug as essentially evil. The newspaper that produced the “belly” of the oxi came to cover the subject of drugs, in another (and new) editor called “Society.” In general, however, national coverage is still largely police, superficial, full of errors, prejudices and sensationalism.
The first explanation for all these problems of drug coverage is commercial. Any newspaper director knows that sex and violence, dreaming and fear, are audience magnets and clicks. And psychoactive substances – especially illicit substances – have historically been presented as a bogeyman to scare readers and leverage sales. The tricks are subtle but effective. The synonymy between drug use and addiction, for example, leads the citizen to think that it is enough for his son to touch a joint to become a “junkie.” Adding to it exhaustively replicated myths, such as that “marijuana is the gateway to heavy drugs like crack,” fathers and mothers are terrified at any sign of smoke.
In 2013, a Datafolha survey found that involving children with drugs is the biggest fear of Brazilian families – more than assaults and unemployment, for example. The result is, to some extent, a testament to the effectiveness of the media in spreading fear. In 1983, when the research institute did the survey for the first time, the greatest fear of families was inflation -theme repeated by the press with the illustration of a dragon. Twenty years later, the fire-breathing animal was replaced by another mythological being, the “zombie of the cracolândia”. The strategy of scaring to sell remains the same. The solution to this source of drug coverage problems comes down to one word: ethics. It’s up to the owners, the directors and the vehicle editors to give up the sensationalist device. It is the very credibility of their vehicles that is at stake.
Another frequent cause of coverage failures on the topic is, say, structural. The popularization of the Internet, and then of smartphones, was a blow to traditional vehicles, especially to the newspapers of the big press. Increasingly, people turn to social networking friends to find out. The fall in circulation and billing has made newspapers shrink and dismiss mass reporters. Overworked, those left in the newsrooms blame the lack of professionals and the time to perform the guidelines with precision and depth  . But in a time marked by the massification of fake news,the crisis should not be an excuse for ills. On the contrary, it should be a further incentive in the pursuit of good journalism. Again, it is credibility that is threatened. It is what can guarantee the survival of the vehicles amid the profusion of dubious information that is accessed on the internet.
After all, but not least, another cause of the precariousness of drug coverage is the unpreparedness of journalists to deal with a complex issue. Few subjects have such a multidisciplinary character. A debate on drug policies – such as the validity of compulsory hospitalizations, for example – necessarily involves medical, legal, sociological, and even philosophical issues. It is very difficult for a journalist to go through so many areas with fluency. In addition, drugs are linked to cultural, moral and religious issues, which even influence science. The debate within each area of knowledge is fraught with ideological background controversy.
Journalists and communicators in general have to prepare themselves better to cover this issue in all its complexity, with responsibility and precision. But those who consume information also have the role, not least, of distrusting what is read and seen there. And to monitor the performance of media outlets, be they old bastions of the press or young Youtube channels. Did you notice that certain information is wrong, incomplete, skewed? Send letter to the ombudsman, comments on the social network, complaints to the editor: show everyone that you are watching. The story of oxy – and so many other drug coverage bellies – is an example of how the media can manipulate our emotions and lives with myths and invented monsters. The role of the media should be just the opposite: to protect us from these lies.