Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

As fentanyl overdoses continue to skyrocket in the U.S., questions about where it comes from and how to deal with it are driving media bias and divides in coverage.

During the week of March 13, the Drug Enforcement Administration captured over 900 pounds of fentanyl at the U.S.-Mexico border in an operation dubbed "Blue Lotus." This operation was a reaction to the mass drugs entering the U.S. from the southern border. 

Following the seizure, some Lean Left outlets highlighted the need for better U.S.-Mexico relations, and one framed the operation as successful. 

Meanwhile, some Lean Right and Right outlets mentioned the push by Republicans to label cartels as terrorist organizations and implied more needs to be done to combat the fentanyl crisis. 

  • Said Operation Blue Lotus is already seizing more drugs than we have in the past
  • Some emphasized the need to repair U.S.-Mexico relations
  • Suggested that the current administration is downplaying the Fentanyl crisis
  • Some emphasized Republican concerns about labeling cartels as foreign terrorist organizations

What Happened?

Operation Blue Lotus is an operation by the Department of Homeland Security to intercept the fentanyl coming over the southern border through increased inspections, canine dogs, and advanced non intrusive technology. DHS states that the operation led to 18 seizures, 16 federal arrests and two state arrests. According to ABC News (Lean Left), “ Those seizures prevented over 900 pounds of fentanyl, 700 pounds of methamphetamines and 100 pounds of cocaine from entering the United States through [March 19].”

Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the DEA. According to CBS News (Lean Left), “The potent drug was behind approximately 66% of the 107,622 drug overdose deaths between December 2020 and December 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And since 2018, fentanyl-laced pill seizures by law enforcement has increased nearly 50-fold.”

How the Left Covered It

One ABC News article portrayed the operation as a success with the headline, "New fentanyl targeting operation already has stopped 900 pounds from entering US: DHS" (emphasis ours). 

It also quoted DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the operation. At the very end of the article it mentions that Mayorkas has been “in the hot seat from congressional Republicans” over his handling of the border. 

Only mentioning Republican criticism in the second to last paragraph and providing no quotes or specificities about such criticism reflects bias by viewpoint placement. While an article about a DHS operation does not necessarily need equal quotes from partisan politicians, it should include specific quotes of relevant criticism of the operation in the story when it exists.

By leading with the operation has already stopped this many drugs, implies that the operation will only get more successful. By burying the criticism that the operation is not doing enough to address the fentanyl crisis until the end of the article, ABC News frames critiques as unfounded or worth little attention. 

Articles from NPR (Lean Left) and NBC News (Lean Left) after the operation about the fentanyl crisis focused on the need to improve U.S.-Mexico relations, which displays bias by story choice because the stories focused on diplomacy, while those on the right focused more on the cartels themselves. 

How The Right Covered It

The New York Post (Lean Right) covered the story in a balanced manner, by quoting DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as well as quoting critiques from former Attorney General Bill Barr and other Republicans that the Biden administration is not cracking down on cartels enough.

The Daily Caller (Right) only mentioned the facts of the Blue Lotus operation. They only quoted from the DHS and did not include criticism in the story. While Daily Caller framed the operation more neutrally than ABC News, it omitted any perspectives on the operation that were outside the DHS. 

A piece by the Washington Examiner (Lean Right) covered the story similarly, focusing on the details provided about the operation by DHS, but they briefly quoted Biden's promise in the State of the Union address to “secure the border.” After Republicans shouted calls to “secure the border” during the speech, Biden replied, “you got it.”

Meanwhile, Fox News (Right), put out a story about the cartels having too much power in Mexico. The Fox News article stated, “a number of Republicans [are] advocating for a tougher stance against Mexican drug cartels in response to the fentanyl crisis which is killing around 70,000 Americans a year.” Some of the Republicans are calling for cartels to be categorized as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. 

Fox’s story choice about cartel power in the fentanyl crisis displays bias by both story choice and omission for not mentioning the relevant measures taken to combat smuggling by the DHS. 

What We Know, and Don’t Know, About the Fentanyl Crisis

Politifact (Lean Left) posed an important question about the fentanyl seizures: "Do rising fentanyl seizures at the border signal better detection or more drugs?"

Some Republican legislators and Fox News would argue that more drugs are coming into the country, while the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and organizations like ABC, seem to argue that our methods of detection have improved. 

With only the facts about how many drugs have been seized at the border, it is impossible to know which is the case, or if both are the case to varying degrees. Politifact points out the only way to know which is the case would be to have data on how much fentanyl is being produced, how much is intended to reach the U.S., how much actually reaches the U.S., and how much is seized at the border. 

Without data on all of these questions, be wary of any narrative that claims a definitive answer as to the efficacy of the response to the drug crisis at the border. The data is more complicated than a simple answer, and implying that it is could amount to misinformation.

This is just one of many recent examples of political bias appearing in news stories. See our other recent media bias breakdown of the Silicon Valley Bank collapse and legislation on drag bans.

Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging and Bias Assistant at AllSides. She has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias), Daily News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias) and CEO John Gable (Lean Right bias).