Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Are Journalists Too Soft On Pot?"

Images (1)The question in the title of this post is part of the headline of this lengthy and effective piece by Joel Warner at International Business Times.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

After decades of critical reporting on marijuana issues, if they bothered to cover the subject at all, have the media as a whole moved too far in the opposite direction? Are reporters and editors now so high on the topic of cannabis that they’re going too soft on the subject?...

Even longtime marijuana advocates say media coverage has shifted. “Back in the ’90s, I would be the only person on the TV show on the issue in favor of reform, and there would be a cop, a prosecutor and a drug specialist, along with the host, who would also be anti-marijuana,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Now, today, Kevin [Sabet] is the one who has to scramble because the host of the show is neutral or supportive of reform, and I am joined by someone from the marijuana-business community and a member of [the pro-legalization group] Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.”

For years, St. Pierre says, NORML has maintained an internal database of editorial boards nationwide that it considered to be anti-marijuana. In the late 1980s, that list encompassed more than 150 newspapers. Now it’s down to just 30 or 40, and St. Pierre says most of them are owned by a handful of corporate owners opposed to legalization.

It’s not just TV news hosts and newspaper editorial boards that have changed their tune on cannabis. Now there are marijuana-business newspapers and marijuana-culture magazines, full-time marijuana-industry reporters (this writer included) and even an marijuana-editorial division at the Denver Post called the Cannabist staffed with a marijuana editor and cannabis strain reviewers that is the subject of a major documentary....

If the resulting media coverage is generally positive, it could be because, all in all, there’s not much to complain about when it comes to the marijuana movement. “I would contend that if Project SAM is seeing more coverage of the positive aspects of legalization, it’s because the positive aspects of legalization are outweighing the negative,” says Taylor West, deputy director the National Cannabis Industry Association. “There are absolutely things that need to be looked at and fixed, and that is an ongoing process. But all of this ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric that people like them have used for years hasn’t come true.”

Plus, many pro-marijuana activists say if anything, most journalists are still unfairly critical of cannabis. “You are framing your story around the question of whether the media is ‘going too light on the movement,’ which inherently suggests you are going too hard on the movement,” says Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “An unbiased story would be about whether the media is covering the issue and the movement accurately. We are still in a situation in which the marijuana-policy-reform movement has to prove everything and constantly defend itself, whereas opponents are generally taken at their word.”...

The situation has left some of those with a stake in the game fuming. “Unfortunately, the type of one-sided, advocacy-driven reporting we used to see relegated to the pages of High Times is now commonplace in the mainstream media,” says a former top drug-policy official, who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s a real disservice for the millions of Americans who are poised to live each day with the public-health consequences of this experiment.”

There are several factors that could lead to skewed marijuana coverage in favor of legalization. For starters, the fact that there are relatively few major anti-legalization advocates making noise these days, compared with a lengthy parade of well-funded marijuana activist organizations, trade groups, lobbying firms and public-relations outfits means it’s easier for one side to get its message out to news outlets than for the other....

Then there is the impact of all those reading and disseminating the resulting news coverage. Online, cannabis activists have become a loud and powerful bunch, launching advocacy blogs, sharing articles on Reddit and Twitter that support their case and lambasting those that don’t. This means positive cannabis coverage can equal big social media hits and resulting clicks, while negative stories can face a backlash — and the sheer scale of the pro-marijuana community’s passion can be intimidating. When the New York Times’ David Brooks penned a column criticizing legalization efforts in early 2014, he was besieged by online ridicule, derision that was echoed by some of his colleagues in the media. He hasn’t touched the subject since.

Marijuana advertising could also be an issue. At a time when ad revenue is shrinking and classified sections have been decimated, the nascent marijuana industry has proven to be a welcome new source of advertising dollars, especially for free alternative-weekly newspapers such as Seattle Weekly and Denver’s Westword (where, in the interest of full disclosure, this reporter used to work). While publications such as these maintain strict firewalls between the advertising and editorial sides, there’s a risk that some outlets could be seen as becoming so financially intertwined with the marijuana industry that their objectivity could threatened, such as how ESPN’s dependence on NFL contracts has led some to suggest the organization can no longer accurately cover football. Similarly, journalism jobs, including this reporter’s, have been created to cover the burgeoning marijuana business. If the data support it, could these journalists be expected to conclude that legalization has been a failure, if that means they would also be writing the obituaries for their own jobs?...

Some skewed marijuana coverage might have less to do with newsroom bias and more about how news operations are allocating resources to the issue. Stick “marijuana” in a headline these days and it’s bound to get hits. So then why bother devoting precious manpower over days or weeks to investigating whether potency labels on marijuana edibles are accurate or tracking down the dealings of shady cannabis penny stocks when a report on a marijuana-infused film screening — and its accompanying puntastic headline — will attract just as much attention?...

But there are signs that marijuana coverage, like the cannabis scene itself, is evolving. If cannabis continues to be a news draw, it could lead to ever-more skillful and in-depth journalism on the subject. It’s a promising sign that journalism professors such as Matranga are teaching classes on marijuana journalism and objective news startups such as Cannabis Wire are taking root. Plus, as medical-marijuana programs develop in cities such as New York and Chicago, the ample media operations in these towns will likely pay close attention to how these ventures are progressing in their midst.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2016/01/are-journalists-too-soft-on-pot.html

Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment