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Missing the Mark

60 Minutes program off base, but there's a lesson in there, too

Though stacks of studies and countless anecdotes have discredited claims that commercial gaming is associated with a wide range of ills, mainstream media repeatedly report those claims as fact.

Oftentimes, news stories about gaming seem to be based more on conventional wisdom than hard data. After all, it may seem reasonable for a reporter to assume that, as casino gambling has expanded across the United States, the rate of gambling disorders also has grown. It may be easy for them to believe that slot machines, with their bright lights and catchy jingles, are inherently addictive.

But, of course, neither assertion is true.

A recent episode of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes provides yet another disturbing example of how the media frequently gets it wrong on gaming. Last month, journalist Lesley Stahl reported that newer, flashier slot machines—as well as revenue-hungry legislators who promote expanded gambling—encourage greater rates of gambling addiction.

The segment offered few facts and provided a platform for gaming opponents to trot out well-worn, inaccurate claims about our industry. A simple check on the prevalence rate of pathological gambling—which, according to numerous studies, has held steady at 1 percent for more than 30 years—disproves the report’s entire hypothesis.

But the piece itself was far less troubling than what was excluded from it. A look at the interviews and facts posted on the show’s website—which discussed how the brains of gambling addicts work and explained the odds associated with various casino games—indicate that 60 Minutes producers had the makings of a far more balanced and informative story. Unfortunately, they left much of that material on the cutting-room floor.

The 60 Minutes story serves as an important reminder to the American Gaming Association—and, indeed, to our entire industry—that we must continue proactively educating our customers, employees and neighbors about the benefits casinos bring. And we must remain vigilant about correcting misinformation irresponsibly reported in the media. Without question, gaming always will have vocal, passionate opponents; our best recourse is to continue building a thorough knowledge base about our industry’s positive impact.

Concrete examples of that impact were shared last fall during a public forum in Cape Girardeau, Missouri—a town considering introducing commercial gaming. The event featured testimony from a collection of mayors about the effect casinos have had on their communities.

Maryland Heights, Missouri, Mayor Mike Moeller responded to community members’ questions about casinos leading to social problems: “All these negative things, they never did come to fruition.”

And Boonville, Missouri, Mayor Julie Thatcher said: “I was brought up in a Southern Baptist home. I wasn’t brought up believing in gambling. But the second time, I voted for it. It’s been a wonderful thing for our town, and we would be in a world of hurt without the gaming money coming into our town.”

These are real stories—endorsements from community leaders who have experienced the true realities of casino gambling. They have witnessed firsthand how casinos have breathed new life into their local economies, and they acknowledge that initial fears harbored by their constituents about commercial gaming have proven unfounded. These are the kinds of stories our industry should share more frequently when reporters question its benefit.

Similar anecdotes are not hard to come by. Hundreds of accounts from citizens living and working in gaming communities across the country echo the mayors’ sentiments. Specific, local data, however, is a bit more difficult to dig up—an issue the AGA plans to remedy in 2011.

While the AGA has a library of resources that include statistics about the industry’s broad, direct economic impact, we have little recent data on the industry’s secondary and tertiary impacts in gaming communities. In 2009, casinos paid their employees $13.1 billion; how much of their annual pay did those employees spend with neighboring businesses? And what is the ripple effect within a community when a new casino increases local tourism?

In addition, our industry purchases untold millions of dollars in supplies every year—from linens to light bulbs—which fuels the economy in ways we have not yet measured. And how much do casinos contribute—in funding and volunteer hours—to charitable organizations each year?

Work already is under way to get to the bottom of these and many other complex questions; the AGA has commissioned an extensive research project that will be completed during the summer. Once collected, the data will inform the AGA’s renewed efforts to publicize the modern gaming industry’s crucial role in economies at the national, state and local levels.

The National Center for Responsible Gaming, the AGA’s affiliated charity, also has made public education a priority this year. The organization has expanded its efforts to inform a broader range of stakeholders about gambling disorders—from gaming regulators to college administrators to parents. Through events such as road tours, webinars and treatment-provider workshops, the NCRG will widely share the latest research on pathological gambling and discuss the progress made in diagnosing, treating and preventing the condition.

In 2011, our industry must collectively recommit itself to sharing the true story of commercial gaming—a story that is not clouded by bias or sensationalism. And we must encourage journalists to weigh the facts—rather than rely on conventional wisdom—when reporting on gambling problems. Public perception about our industry must reflect reality, not the angry, unfounded rhetoric of our opponents.

During the Cape Girardeau mayors’ forum last fall, Mayor Tom Hoechst spoke passionately about the powerful impact our industry has had on Alton, Illinois, and its citizens. “We have had a tremendous working relationship with the local casino,” he said. “They’ve been the savior of our community.”

Now that’s a story I’d like to hear more about.

 

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