Two hysterical drinking stories:

Wire reports about college students and alcohol mixed ridiculous assumptions, sloppy journalism

by David Kopel

April 21, 2002

"Drink thy wine with a merry heart," says the Book of Ecclesiastes. On the other hand, frantic articles in The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News are claiming that more than a thousand college students a year are killed by alcohol. So who's right?

Well, you can make up your own mind on Ecclesiastes, but the study touted in the newspapers was bogus. On April 10, the Post and the News ran wire service stories claiming that alcohol-related accidents kill 1,400 college students a year. But as the Cato Institute's Steven Milloy pointed out on JunkScience.com, the study made ridiculous assumptions about what constituted an "alcohol-related" death.

For example, suppose a 22-year-old drank a beer with dinner, and then rode in a car with a driver who hadn't drunk anything, and the car was struck by a stone-cold-sober speeder driving 90 mph; the passenger, with a tiny amount of alcohol in his blood, was killed. Although the passenger's death obviously had nothing to do with that single beer he drank, the study counts this death as "alcohol-related."

Moreover, the figures about "college student" deaths weren't based on actual figures about the deaths of college students. The study simply figured that since 31 percent of people aged 18-24 are college students, then 31 percent of "alcohol-related" deaths in this age group must be college students. Milloy points out that this assumption is like claiming that since 50 percent of the population is female, half of all crimes are committed by women; in fact, men commit far more crimes than women.

Because such a huge percentage of college students live in dormitories, they are much less likely than nonstudents to need to drive home after they've been drinking.

Neither the Knight-Ridder story in the Post nor the Associated Press story in the News offered the readers any perspective from a scholar (or anyone else) contradicting the hysterical theme of the story.

The Post (April 10) and the News (March 26) also offered stories about "binge drinking" at CU Boulder. Both stories commendably disclosed the definition being used for "binge drinking": four or more glasses over any continuous period of time for a woman or five for a man.

In other words, a woman who attends a Passover seder and drinks the ritual four cups of wine is a "binge drinker" according to this preposterous definition. Same for a man who drinks a six-pack of light beer with his friends while watching a six-hour football doubleheader.

According to state law, neither the Passover woman nor the football man would be legally intoxicated, or even impaired.

The choices of words in media coverage of the current war in the Middle East are very strange.

The media have taken to describing Palestinian fighters as "militia." The U.S. Supreme Court in 1939 defined militia as "civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion," in which the civilian character "predominates over that of the soldier." Most of the Palestinian fighters are either irregulars or from the Palestinian Authority's "police" force -- a full-time uniformed, professional organization, which is quite similar to a standing army, not a militia. The only real militia involved in the current war are the Israeli reservists.

Suicide was a tactic used by Buddhist monks in South Vietnam in the early 1960s; they would set themselves on fire to protest the pro-American Diem government's repression. The Buddhists, of course, killed only themselves. The Palestinian bombers, in contrast, are aiming to kill as many people as possible. President Bush and Fox News have adopted the term "homicide bomber" for these killers. The Post and the News ought to follow suit. Even those people who applaud or excuse the killing of dozens of people at Passover seders or pizza parlors would have no cause to complain about the word choice; homicide is simply an accurate description of what is being done, and the phrase doesn't indicate whether the homicide is justifiable.

The Post and the News both gave very prominent coverage to Yasser Arafat's assertion on April 13 that he is against homicide bombing. The day before, Mrs. Arafat told an Arabic-language magazine that if she had a son there would be "no greater honor" than for him to perpetrate a homicide bombing. The New York Times reported the story on Monday, April 15, noting that Mrs. Arafat's statement was part of a mixed message being sent by the Palestinian leadership. While the News ran the Times story the same day, the Post has yet to print (as of April 17, when I'm writing this column) a single word about Mrs. Arafat's celebration of the use of children as homicide bombers.

The day after Arafat said he didn't support terrorism, the WAFA news agency -- the official, government-controlled news agency of the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- announced that Palestinians will continue to use "human bombs" and that there is "no hope for future reconciliation with Israel." The Washington Times (April 15) reported the PA announcement, but not a word in the Denver dailies.


 

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