Lead Pipes vs. Crack Pipes

On January 26, the New York Times examined "The Epidemic That Wasn't" -- breathless news reporting from the 1980s that predicted an epidemic of irreparable damage to inner-city children whose mothers used crack cocaine. Actually, it turns out, the so-called "crack babies" are doing fine. On the same day, notes the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington Post published a story on an epidemic that was -- hundreds of children who have unsafe amounts of lead in their blood due to contamination of the water supply in Washington, DC. "The sad irony about these stories appearing on the same day is that lead poisoning in young children actually produces some of the irreparable cognitive and developmental damage that was once believed to be caused by exposing infants to cocaine," writes Lester Feder. "Lead poisoning also disproportionately affects the low income and African-American populations menaced by the crack epidemic. But while crack babies became a symbol of America’s deteriorating inner city during the Reagan administration, President Reagan cut funding for lead screening and ordered the Centers for Disease Control to stop keeping lead poisoning statistics." Feder also notes a difference in reporting standards for the two epidemics. When writing about crack babies, he notes, "they often treated speculation as fact and used language as alarmist as possible." When writing about lead poisoning, however, they were careful to seek comments from lead industry representatives to flag "the possibility that the science could be questioned, a caution missing from the crack baby stories."