Framing the Danger of Designer Drugs: Mass Media, Bath Salts, and the "Miami Zombie Attack"

Research paper by Swalve, N, DeFoster, R.

Indexed on: 06 Jul '16Published on: 30 Jun '16Published in: Contemporary drug problems


Media reporting of drug issues has important ramifications for public opinion of drugs and drug trends. This study was conducted to examine the media coverage of a specific new subcategory of drugs, so-called "designer drugs," using coverage of a highly publicized attack in Miami as a case study. Broadcast news transcripts were analyzed to both identify themes in coverage of this attack and contextualize this reporting in the clinical literature on bath salts, the drug implicated in the attack. Textual analysis of broadcast coverage produced four major emergent themes: (1) vivid and sensational descriptions of the attack and of the effects of the drug, (2) discussion of bath salts use as an "epidemic," (3) appeals to tighten legislation related to bath salts, and (4) silence on issues related to mental health. In addition, media reporting of this attack did not take into account potentially salient sources of information such as clinical research on rates of use and commonly reported behavioral effects of the drug to place bath salts use in context of this literature. Together, these findings suggest that media coverage of the Miami Zombie Attack framed a novel drug in incomplete and problematic terms. These framing choices dramatically underrepresented the role of mental health in the attack and led to inadequately informed health legislation.