For the last three centuries, we’ve been looking to the media to keep us updated on what’s going on in our country and all over the world. What started as dignified printed news eventually became the mess we deal with today: a combination of real information and fake, click-bait articles that we have to diligently sort through.
This is especially true when discussing cannabis. It can be insanely difficult to find accurate information about weed, even when it’s coming from top mainstream publications. Either they’re just not knowledgeable on the subject, or they have some other agenda. Whatever the case, it’s important to take it with a grain of salt and verify everything with your own research.
A brief history of American journalism
Journalism and the free press has been part of the fabric of American society since the early 1700’s. Not only does the news keep us informed on current events, but it has also been a driving force for change and revolution. The press was a key factor in publicizing the many injustices forced upon the colonists by the British Government, putting the media front and center in support of the American Revolution. After gaining our independence in 1776, guaranteed freedom of the press and speech was written into our constitution.
In recent years, American journalism has become a powerhouse of information, politics, advocacy, muckraking and sensationalism; but it started with humble beginnings. The first printed paper was titled “Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick” and was published by Benjamin Harris, although it didn’t go far and got cancelled after the first edition. After that, the first successful American newspaper was The Boston News-Letter, which ran from 1704 to 1776. It stopped printing when British troops departed from Boston and took the news-letter publisher and avid loyalist, Margaret Draper, back to Britain with them and gave her a lifelong pension.
These days, it’s all about digital journalism. Although printed papers and magazines are still somewhat successful, social media and various other online sources are becoming huge platforms for news and information. USA Today was the first publication to go online in 1995, and CNN followed suit shortly after. After 2000, the demand for free and easy information pushed many publications into bankruptcy.
In addition to financial decline, it’s commonly believed that the internet has ultimately destroyed the newspaper business model, which promoted knowledgeable and impartial reporting. With the rise of the world wide web, biased news, sensationalism, and click-bait is promoted so publications can get traffic, and sometimes, to adhere to some sort of political agenda. While that may sound a little far-fetched to some, hear me out, not all news stories are straight forward.
Cannabis is often portrayed less than favorably
This is obvious when we look at some of the cannabis-related stories that get a lot of views and shares. For example, “Marijuana theft led to kidnapping of Lancaster girl (TX)” or “Warrenville teens accused of giving marijuana to 5-year-old (IL).” Yes, these are both horrible, stupid, and unacceptable; but one could argue that anyone who would commit these horrendous acts already has mental problems and would do something like this whether it’s related to cannabis or another drug.
Of course these should absolutely get media attention as well, but there are so many studies showing the benefits of cannabis that don’t get publicized at all. And we’re not talking about so-called “studies” where someone surveys a bunch a potheads online. I mean government supervised, placebo-controlled clinical trials from all over the world… and they get virtually NO attention. The studies that do get shared are often filled with inaccurate and misleading data, small sample sizes, and don’t account for important variables. Why is that? Why is it that the mainstream media seems to only want to show us weed’s ugly side?
There are many theories; some include the pharmaceutical companies’ stronghold over our nation, others surround the idea that politics and favoritism are getting in the way, or maybe it’s related to finances. Most likely, it’s all of the above combined. But in my recent experience I’ve noticed politics have been clouding the judgement of reporters at what should be considered legitimate news sources.
Politics, favoritism and fake news
As you may already know, I live in Indiana, a very strict prohibition state. A few weeks ago, our over zealous Attorney General Curtis Hill wrote a piece to IndyStar, our local paper, title “Don’t legalize medical marijuana in Indiana.” He included only alternative facts with no sources or validity, and mentioned how “marijuana is linked to crime,” although no clear correlation between crime and cannabis has ever been made.
He also boldly stated that “amid our current opioid crisis, Indiana leaders should work to curtail drug abuse rather then welcoming more of it. Legalizing a gateway drug such as marijuana leads vulnerable people to worse substances such as methamphetamine and heroin.” Interesting, since statistics show that overdose deaths in legal states decrease by an average of 25 percent.
The Hoosier State is one of the top in the state for per capita opioid prescriptions. Enough pain pills are prescribed here for each resident, all 6.63 million of us, to have at least one bottle of pills, some people would even end up with more. What’s odd is this idea that opioid abuse can be prevented by prescribing more opioids rather than cannabis.
My partners at Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis and I crafted a detailed and factual rebuttal for IndyStar, with recent stats and studies of how cannabis can be a positive change for the state. After making multiple edits and removing sections from it, they finally agreed to post our piece. Unfortunately, they posted it on the opinion page, mixed in with about 9 other articles (all on one page in continuous text) so it was almost impossible to find. Then, that same day, they released an article titled “Marijuana Offers No Medical Benefits.”
Like its predecessor, this piece was also overflowing with misguided information in a veiled attempt to scare the public away from the “dangers” of weed. The author used outdated studies, some were over 30 years old, he stated that cannabis causes cancer, and many other bits of false information. But despite this, it was posted on its own page, with a direct URL, its own image, and they even promoted it on Facebook. Why would they do that when the information isn’t even true? Aren’t they supposed to be a balanced news source that offers unbiased information, especially when it could help so many residents? Is it because IndyStar is biased to Mr. Hill and the AG’s office so they’d rather keep him happy and let the integrity of their journalism slide into the back seat?
What’s probably most perplexing of all is trying to get down to the root of Mr. Hill’s feeling towards cannabis and where they come from. It’s hard to tell if his fear is genuine, or driven by a need to appease campaign contributors and special interest groups in the state. Whatever his reason, what’s clear is that he has no interest in providing factual information that could actually benefit Hoosiers.
What can you do?
I imagine my experience with IndyStar isn’t uncommon. It probably happens at major publications throughout many American cities. There are a lot of people out there who are on the fence about weed. An article like this, from a publication they trust, and written by a person who should have the residents’ best interest in mind, could be enough to sway some voting-aged people over to the prohibition side of the fence.
There are a few things we all can do to help minimize the spread of inaccurate and harmful information though. Most importantly, read everything before you share it, and check the sources. You will learn a lot and be able to make your own, better informed opinions by looking at the original published studies. If the public vetted these articles and refused to share pieces that aren’t legitimate, I’m sure we’d see them lose their footing on social media.
If you’re a writer/reporter/journalist, don’t contribute to the madness! Unbiased reporting is key. False information is completely useless to the reader, and it does wonders to your credibility as a writer if you make sure to stick to the facts. Fake news is rampant in politics, and it certainly hinders the cannabis industry’s mission as well. If you need more help learning about the differences between fake and real news, check out this useful info from the International Federation of Library Associations.