Raves, Drug Use, and the Media: Searching for Balanced Coverage
by Michael Walker
photos by Sabrina Sexton Weil
Recent news media coverage of the recreational use of Ecstasy and other drugs in the United States and the United Kingdom has once again portrayed a connection between illegal drug use and rave-related culture. I say "portrayed" because in none of the television specials I have seen nor newspaper or magazine articles I have read on this subject is there a strong and continuous correlation between rave culture, raves themselves, and the abuse of drugs. In some instances, a person featured in the news story may have consumed a drug at a rave or have purchased drugs at a rave, but often the connection is not so concrete, but more one along the lines of Ecstasy being called a "rave drug" or "dance drug," and this connotative association being presented in such a way that the viewer or reader of the news report may well assume that drug use is commonplace among ravers and that raves are hotbeds of drug activity. Such connotations are dangerous, because they present half-truths and incomplete information about both raves and drugs in a manner that will encourage persons not familiar with raving or its cultural presence to formulate negative and biased views of raves and those who attend them. To find that some of the largest American and British news agencies are purporting this type of slanted and incomplete coverage is surprising and scary, given the number of people their broadcasts and readerships include.
The purpose of this article is not to debate the merits of recreational drug use or the biomedical effects and comparative safety of various drugs; such arguments and analyses can be found in other forums. Instead, my intention here is to examine how the mainstream news media has presented the general public it serves with an often biased and inaccurate representation of drug abuse in conjunction with raves. What I am looking at, therefore, is a matter of social construction of our subculture by people largely outside of this cultural setting, and my main concern is the consideration of why the mainstream media is seemingly unable to offer fair coverage to our subculture although it has less trouble with providing a lack of bias to arguments promoting recreational drug use itself. In example, a recent CBS network "48 Hours" television show about the supposedly growing prevalence of Ecstasy use in America presented several points of view that advocated the safety of Ecstasy in terms of health effects, the need for legalization of the drug, and the medical benefits of the drug in psychotherapy. Despite this balanced approach to the pros and cons of Ecstasy itself, the news show took a far more biased approach to raves and their role in the furtherance of Ecstasy use.
Having read a considerable number of mainstream media articles on raves, associated sociocultural factors, and drug abuse, I have come to the conclusion that several problems exist in the approach that reporters, editors, and other producers of such coverage take to raving as a cultural phenomenon. By problems, I mean issues directly related to the methodology and construction of such reporting again, I am not taking sides on the argument over recreational drug use and do not expect the news media or any responsible journalist to take sides on this contentious topic, either. I will be the first to acknowledge that there is drug use at raves and that some ravers do regularly indulge in illegal drugs, but I must also acknowledge that little empirical evidence exists to postulate that the incidence and prevalence of drug abuse is higher among people who attend raves than among other sociocultural categories. Moreover, once you begin labeling people and their behavior by what so-called groups they belong to rather than by variables that are easier to quantify, you start a climb up a very slippery slope and begin to enact stereotypes that are more ignorant myths than facts. When journalists perpetuate stereotypes whether deliberately or otherwise they do the population they serve a grave disservice because this fosters an ongoing reliance on these stereotypes as reality. In the case at hand, what is truly disturbing is the seemingly imperative need of many journalists to associate Ecstasy with raves, even when the cases of Ecstasy use they may be reporting are not directly connected with raving in any way.
Why is this? In part, the advent of Ecstasy as a popular recreational drug in the United Kingdom and slightly later in America and Canada coincided with the rise of popularity of raves. Admittedly, Ecstasy played a viable role in rave culture at this point, especially in the UK. But still, not everyone attending raves was taking Ecstasy or any other drugs. Yet the image of Ecstasy and raving linked together persisted in the social perception of raves, in large part because of how the British media broadly reported on raving at the onset of the cultural movement. Journalists, accustomed to rapidly informing a diverse population of non-specialists about often specialized material, are adept at the use of analogies. In the case of initial reportage on raves, it was easy enough to compare raves to large gatherings of young people in the 1960s, citing the importance of music and drugs as the primary motivations for people to take part in this phenomenon. Again, to an extent these comparisons were correct and useful, but they also were dangerous in the sense that they did not delve far enough into the composition of raves themselves and instead relied on metaphor and association for definitions of a cultural movement that in many ways was unprecedented. What is more, these initial reports subsisted and were often referred to by American journalists at the beginning of the growth of popularity of raves in the States. The problem here is that drug use in American raves may well have been, per number of persons attending these events, actually lower than the incidence of drug use at raves in the UK. Whether such was the case or not was rarely even investigated by the media; instead, whatever background information available on British raving was compiled and utilized to inform reportage on American raves.
As American raves spread from being small, secretive, events to larger, more commercialized events attended by greater numbers of people and often younger kids than those who went to the first wave of events in either the UK or US public interest in raving grew because the phenomenon had crossed the threshold between being an external concern to something that might affect large numbers of American youth. The correlation between raving and drug use seemed significant, and provided news reports with a focal point for their coverage. Drugs, since the Reagan Era efforts to greatly curtail their use via a declared national "war on drugs," had become a common topic for the American news media and one that offered all the trappings of a good, interesting, story: good versus evil, controversy, intrigue, and excitement. Explaining what a rave is might just be a lot easier of a task providing that drug use which was already frequently covered in news stories could be tied into the picture. Drug use elevated the phenomenon of raves from a human interest level in the spectrum of news stories to one of increased social importance; stories on raves were not thereby regulated to the level of the offbeat yet interesting, but were given a moral and social imperative to inform and demonstrate the possible dangers of raves, frequently without really examining such dangers. Ecstasy was easy to associate with raves and its use in dance clubs (and descriptions of raves and clubs were often mixed together and used as interchangeable entities, to make matters worse) because of the connotative profile earlier news reports of Ecstasy had established of the drug being almost exclusive to rave culture. It would appear that the media not only lacked a proficient understanding of raves and this culture they kept discussing, but also of factual information related to illegal drugs.
Numerous news reports of Ecstasy use at raves from the early 1990s onward have presented a wealth of misinformation about what a rave is and what its attendance entails and of various details regarding the drugs that are supposedly so commonly used at raves. First, lacking hard empirical studies on the actual use of drugs at raves and ignoring what little epidemiological literature on the subject that was available through medical and public health research publications, the news media often came to its own conclusions that were more loose assumptions than anything else. Even by 1998, researchers concerned with the prevalence and incidence of the use of the very drugs often associated with raves were unable construct a totally viable hypothesis of an increase in the use of such drugs, and this situation was reported in a prominent European public health journal (Schuster, et al., 1998). As this article by Schuster and his co-authors reveals, much of the data on the epidemiology of drug abuse during the late 1980s and early 1990s is inconclusive. Two earlier reports from Scotland also indicated that while the use of psychoactive drugs at raves was something public health officials should be aware of, gathering the types of data needed to provide a specific, accurate, representation of the situation was difficult, and no concrete conclusion in terms of a national (Scottish) trend of increased drug use could be made (Forsyth, 1996; and Brown, et al., 1995). These two articles underscore the pragmatic approach that the British medical and public health professions were at that time taking to the issue of raves and drugs.
Other publications in the academic medical literature support the view that health care providers and researchers have taken note of the relationship between drug use and raves but are wisely reluctant to place too much emphasis on this relationship until there is scientific evidence that such stress is warranted. Until then, researchers are treating the use of Ecstasy and other drugs in the scope of rave subculture as they would the use of these drugs in any other sociocultural arena and tend to examine the varying co-factors of risk involved in drug use, including the purity of illegal drugs, possibility for allergic or adverse reactions, and conditions of co-morbidity in drug-related health problems such as not drinking enough water while taking certain drugs (Schwartz and Miller, 1997). Many reports in the medical literature, though focused on the clinical effects of drugs such as Ecstasy, do make mention of the fact that Ecstasy has been used recreationally outside of rave culture and was in fact developed as a commercial, beneficial, pharmaceutical agent long before it was illegally produced as a recreational drug. This is in contrast to some mainstream news reports that call Ecstasy a "designer drug" and insinuate that it was developed completely outside of the scope of legitimate biomedical research. The fact that the drug which is commonly referred to as "Ecstasy" 3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) was first synthesized in Germany by researchers at a major pharmaceutical corporation in the early twentieth century seems to escape them. While most of the associations between raves and drug use have concentrated on Ecstasy, other drugs have found their way into the debate, as well, often with even more misinformation accompanying them than in the case of Ecstasy.
A prime example of this scenario can be found in a recent article "Break-ins for Rave Drug Trouble Veterinarians" in the Denver Post (reprinted online). This article concerns burglaries of veterinary practices by thieves in search of the anesthetic ketamine, and associates the illegal, recreational, use of ketamine with raves. However, there is no evidence provided in this article that the thieves were planning to sell any amount of ketamine they managed to steal at raves, consume it at raves, or were otherwise associated with raves. Certainly, people do abuse ketamine, but not all of those who do are involved in raving at all. Yet the title itself directly correlates ketamine, the thefts, and raves; ketamine, tellingly, is not even mentioned in that title but raves, alas, are. The article states "Ketamine, an animal tranquilizer and now a popular drug used at raves [...]", furthering the idea that ketamine abuse and raves are closely tied. Moreover, even the identification of ketamine as "an animal tranquilizer" is misleading given that ketamine, while more prominently used in veterinary than human medicine, is also used as an anesthetic for human surgery (Physician's Drug Handbook, 1997). And of course, the pharmacological differences between an anesthetic and a tranquilizer are meaningful, as well. Thus, some essential technical information is missing from the report while a socially constructed association between the drug in question, its theft from veterinary practices, and its role in rave culture is based only on loose, generalized, facts and no direct evidence from the events discussed in the article. Apparently, it is not enough for the newspaper to report that ketamine, an anesthetic drug with potential for recreational use as a disassociative hallucinogen, has been stolen from local veterinarians' offices. This information, however, is precisely the factual content of the article.
An even more recent (published December second, this year) article from the Pennsylvania-based newspaper Tribune-Review designates Ecstasy as a "designer drug" and implies a high prevalence of usage among youth, stating that "one out of 10 teens say they have tried Ecstasy at least once. The growing trend coincides with reports from Penn State and other colleges, where the once-obscure designer drug has moved into the mainstream, right behind alcohol and marijuana." Just what a "designer drug" is is never is explained by the article, but the connotative association with the "obscure," the exotic, is thereby established. More disturbing yet is the claim that "one out of 10 teens say they have tried Ecstasy at least once." No citation is provided to support this statement or provide a source of the research establishing such as fact. Were the teens in question one out of 10 in Pennsylvania, across the United States, or somewhere else? What kind of survey was used to discover this information? How was the survey sample cohort determined? The importance on including this statement in the article seems to be as a means of offering proof of the severity and prevalence of Ecstasy abuse in adolescents, but the epidemiographic nature of the research is not provided, making this information next to worthless given that it has not been attributed and its relevance in the scope of neither national nor local drug use can be established. (This article can be found reprinted on the web.)
The two articles above certainly don't represent great failings of journalistic integrity or professionalism, but they do exhibit lackluster and sloppy practices in research and present a rather biased view against raves. It is this sort of reporting that is apt to lead persons who are not familiar with raves except via the news media to form negative judgments of raves. After all, from reading these two articles and many more like them in content, it would to the uninformed appear that raves are places where whole legions of youth take ketamine, Ecstasy, and other drugs which have been illegally manufactured or stolen from legitimate health care providers. Certainly, if raves were indeed nothing greater than this simply sites of drug use that encourage further criminal activity most reasonable people would argue for their elimination. But raves are, of course, much beyond such an erroneous simplification, and raves do not completely support nor are solely responsible for the misuses of drugs often associated with them. Some articles have even insinuated that both Ecstasy and ketamine have been spawned as new drugs within rave culture, an interesting perspective given that both have been around a lot longer than raves have with the first raves occurring less than twenty years ago in comparison to the multi-decade histories of these two drugs and their uses and abuses.
Hysteria over adolescents and substance abuse is nothing new under the sun, and youth are an especially susceptible group for politicians who wish to seem to stand for something (or, in this case, against something) to rally against given that the parents of such youth often vote while the young either cannot or simply do not. The sociologist Mike Males has even written a very well-researched book chronicling how politicians, educators, and the media have throughout recent history blamed young people for many of America's problems in a manner that neither addresses the real scope of such problems (especially in the case of drug abuse) nor the real reasons for these problems (Males, 1996). While social sciences and medical professionals tend to take reasonable routes of exploration to problematic issues facing youth, the mass media often seems more interested in exploiting such issues for their emotional appeal and scare factor. As the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo has expressed, dominant sociocultural forces tend to place blame for social ills on either minority populations, the disenfranchised, or those who are foreign and exotic in some way (di Leonardo, 1998). Ravers would easily be included in this model as raves seem exotic by those who know little about them, and youth who attend raves seem like "others," that is, different from mainstream society in their appearance and behavior (especially when such perceptions are based on photographic or video images of raves commonly used in news reportage). The concept, therefore, of raves being huge covert playgrounds of drug activity operating under the cloak of darkness and beckoning otherwise "good" suburban youth to their temptations is one that, however erroneous and incomplete, sells very well because it fits a model of the application of blame and patterns of stereotypical intrigue.
Drugs are a problem in contemporary society, and a problem that needs to be addressed at all levels with intelligence, unbiased consideration, and a keen eye for pragmatic means of effective interventions. There are many debates that require deliberation when it comes to recreational drug use, and they are debates that may take years to resolve. The effect of drugs in rave culture deserves attention too, in the form of well-constructed and effective research, and such research must look at sociocultural elements as well as the purely quantitative aspects of how many drugs are taken and who is taking them. In applied terms, this means a lot of hard work for a lot of people to undertake if we want to obtain the most accurate and representative data possible, but this is the harsh reality of the situation: there can be no easy answers or simple summaries. The news media has an obligation to provide unbiased and accurate reporting at all times and while reporters, editors, and writers certainly may and should contribute their personal opinions, they must be sure to separate their own beliefs from what is established fact. And when facts seem murky, these must be carefully checked as often they will reveal themselves to be more complex than first appearances might indicate. Much good has come out of raves and associated cultural movements for those involved, or else so many individuals would not become involved and remain involved in the scene. Issues related to drug use have their place in the media, but they deserve serious and not superficial treatment while raving deserves to not have the weight of a guilt by association placed upon it in articles about drugs.
It is interesting to note that the profession of dentistry has had a historic association with abuse of prescription drugs, given the capability of dentists to write prescriptions and the lack within dental offices of the type of strict oversight found in hospital-based medical practice. While observers both within the dental profession and outside of it have acknowledged that being a dentist may increase one's potential to abuse certain drugs, the issue has been contained within a realistic perspective and not treated with a sensational slant (Kittelson, 1998). Thereby, interventions are established where they are needed without needless and useless accusations and assumptions appearing in the media. While scenario in effect with raves is very different from that of dentists abusing drugs, a lesson can be learned here in terms of the merits of a responsible, fact-based approach to potentially negative topics that could otherwise breed misunderstanding and undue fear. I implore everyone concerned with the future of raving to pay attention to the way raves are portrayed in their local and national news media and to think critically about what such reporting presents. I would also encourage those who understand our scene and love it to be patient and helpful in explaining it to those who do not, including parents, educators, and journalists. The people who make community-based and administrative decisions with the potential to impact raves listen to the news media closely and we must all do the same and offer factual and balanced information where it is lacking. Furthermore, news agencies should hear from ravers when they have presented a biased or incomplete perspective on raves and the culture around them; they must come to understand that journalistic integrity needs to remain intact while discussing our culture.
Michael Walker is a Florida-based researcher, writer, and cultural theorist. His research on health care reform in developing nations has been published in numerous academic journals including AirMed, Diagnostic Imaging, DI Europe, CATScan, and Acta Medicina Slavica. In addition, his work on cultural construction of language and visual communications has been published in the ATA Chronicle, Translation Journal, and other academic and popular forums including his 1999 article on gay youth and the Atlanta rave scene published here in Lunar Magazine. He is currently researching body image in rave subculture and the application of Catharine A. MacKinnon's feminist legal and social theories to issues of youth agency in contemporary society.
The Media Awareness Project is a great source of information on how the media is reporting on drugs and associated topics, including raves. Their website offers a wealth of links to articles and reprints of interest.
I offer my personal thanks to Paul Kierulf, Adam Rotmil, Nick Fields, Chris Tial, and Josh Nylander for their encouragement of this article. I also salute and am indebted to all journalists who do a quality and thorough job in their reporting and writing.
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