Race, the Media and the Myth of the ‘Crack Baby’Overview
In documenting the rise and fall of a widely circulated but erroneous narrative about the fate of children born to women addicted to crack cocaine, this 10-minute video will teach students about the tone and content of cultural debates over race and the role of government during the Reagan era. It presents a case study in how point of view and context can affect the interpretation of historical sources. By understanding how the news media encouraged panic about a national epidemic of disabled “crack babies,” students will come to see the complex factors and motives behind an incorrect account of an event by a primary source. Useful for lessons on how to evaluate sources, and as a case study for examining the impact of flawed studies (in this case, the sample set was too small to be meaningful), the video is also an introduction to the cultural and political atmosphere of the 1980s.
- How the news media contributed to a scientifically unsupported public panic about the fate of babies born to women addicted to cocaine.
- How the political and cultural context and fear in the 1980s affected the media and public’s perception about and creation of a sensational narrative.
- How a misreading of data in a flawed study can lead to a false narrative that is accepted by the public for cultural reasons.
- Social Studies
- Media/News Literacy
- U.S. History
- AP Psychology
- Media Literacy
- War on Drugs
- Ronald Reagan
- Race in America
- 1980s America
- The Media
Introducing the Lesson
In the 1980s, as drug wars seemed to be escalating across the country, the media sounded the alarm that a new drug – crack cocaine – had a devastating effect on pregnant women and their newborns.
The story originated in a study published in 1985 by a young pediatrician, Dr. Ira Chasnoff. He discovered a worrying trend among his pregnant patients who had used cocaine: they had high rates of premature births. Within days of the study’s release, Chasnoff was swamped by calls from the news media, and a new catchphrase emerged: “crack babies.”
Soon the airwaves were flooded with images of jittery babies born prematurely, physicians warning about permanent brain damage, and public service announcements alerting pregnant mothers that cocaine use could be deadly to their unborn babies
As the stories multiplied, so did concern that waves of crack-affected infants – up to 100,000 a year, by some estimates – would eventually overwhelm school systems and social services, requiring billions in tax dollars to address.
That vision never came to pass. As these so-called “crack babies” grew up, long-term studies found that they suffered no long-term brain damage, severe developmental problems or emotional deficits. Nor did they overwhelm school systems or social services. By 2000, even Dr. Chasnoff conceded that he had overstated the concerns, and acknowledged that cocaine’s ill effects on newborns could be treated.
Moreover, the media frenzy over “crack babies” obscured a far more serious problem that persists today: Maternal alcohol use poses a greater threat to the unborn than cocaine. Alcohol is far more readily available than cocaine, and its well-documented long-term effects on the unborn are devastating.
- What claims about babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers did the news media pass along to the public?
- How were these claims later proven to be incorrect?
- What concerns were expressed about the cost to the government of caring for these babies?
- When pictures or video of affected babies were included in news reports, how often were the babies white? Black? Other?
- Is there any evidence that Dr. Ira Chasnoff or any members of the news media engaged in conscious deception or outright lying?
- If you were living in the 1980s, and watching the nightly news regularly, do you think you would have believed the narrative created about “crack babies”?
- By the news media’s standards, the story about “crack babies” was a “good story.” Why? Why did it attract the public’s attention?
- If we look at news media accounts of “crack babies” as historical sources, what is the context of these sources? What were the dominant ideas about race and the role of government during the 1980s? How do the views of a source’s audience affect the source’s account of events?
- The narrative of a “crack babies” epidemic as reported by the 1980s news media proved false. In assessing the perspective or point of view of the news media, what might have been some of the motives or assumptions that resulted in this mistake?
- What other examples are there in history of the news media and its audience cooperating to create a false narrative? How did historical context compound the development of these false narratives?
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
Critique the central arguments in secondary works of history in multi-media in terms of their historical accuracy.
Skill 3.C: Compare the arguments or ideas of two main sources.
Theme 5: Politics and power (PCE).