Is Cannabis Media Coverage Fair and Balanced?
Or is it all about boosterism and cute puns?
Blowing smoke? Clearing the haze? Gone to pot? Getting into the weeds? Profits getting higher? It’s all the buzz?
With many billions of dollars of business and tax revenue and many jobs at stake, as well as an emerging national debate about legalization, the U.S. cannabis industry has received quite a bit of media coverage. This has been especially true since Colorado and Washington were the first U.S. states to legalize cannabis adult use in 2012, and has morphed into a crescendo of content since California fully legalized in January 2018. And yes, in many cases, in today’s super-competitive world of selling words, at times it seems more about the punny headlines than the substance underneath.
Last month I was privileged to moderate a panel at the Cannabis Media Summit here in New York City. It was the first gathering of journalists and media executives to discuss coverage of this emerging and fast-growing industry. The audience and speakers through the day included, among others, reporters from Forbes, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe, but also more cannabis-focused outlets like The Green Market Report and High Times (and Green Entrepreneur). The New Yorker covered the event with a piece called, “Don’t Call it ‘Weed’ – and Other Tips from the Cannabis Media Summit.” Sadly they quoted several bad jokes I like to tell along with my comment that “These are not going over well.” Said a colleague after seeing the article, “Stick to your day job.”
The title of my panel was “Ethics in Cannabis Coverage.” Who knew this needed to be a topic? I was able to question a number of experienced journalists in the space. Several interesting questions, themes and challenges emerged from the discussion. Here are some of the highlights:
Positive bias is a challenge.
Many who offer to cover the industry at their publication more likely than not are users or supporters of the product. They are less likely, therefore, to write critical or hard-hitting investigative pieces showing the growing pains the industry is facing. Issues like impaired driving, keeping cannabis from children and teens, proper product testing and the like arguably do not receive enough attention.
Prioritizing story choices is difficult.
Is it better to cover “weed weddings” or the medical benefits of cannabis? Social justice issues or the latest big company to go public? The consensus was that media should cover it all, but some admitted that editors tend to focus more than they should on what cute headline will attract eyeballs.
Public company coverage may not be strong enough.
The SEC has issued a warning about investing in cannabis companies. Valuations are extremely high compared to other industries and normal metrics. It does not appear that journalists covering these companies are relaying these warnings as strongly as they might as trends, and instead just cover the daily or weekly ups and downs in these fairly volatile stocks.
Cannabis is a business story.
It has not been clear exactly who should cover this rapidly growing industry. Is it about criminal justice? Pharmaceuticals? The war on drugs? Lifestyle? It appears the media has determined that the business reporters should be the ones focused on these stories. Over time the lifestyle aspects of the path to ending Prohibition likely also will receive more and more coverage.
A prominent Columbia journalism professor, Mike Hoyt, has focused on the need for more coverage of the critical trends the industry is facing. A NiemanReports piece on cannabis coverage quotes Hoyt saying, “The country is in the midst of a major cultural, legal, and economic shift on cannabis. What are the implications of this shift -- for the economy, for the culture, for our health and safety? How should this stuff be regulated and what are the potential costs of poor or nonexistent regulation? Who is getting rich and who is getting jobs? There are a million stories, many of them complicated, that all cry out for sharp arm’s-length journalism.”
What are we seeing at the major news outlets? The NBC News website has a storyline called “Legal Pot.” Its subhead: “Ongoing coverage of states’ legalization of marijuana, marijuana effects and medical marijuana usage in the US.” Most of the stories are positive but some are focusing on the challenges, such as the recent study indicating that developing teen brains could be negatively impacted by using cannabis.
Fox News, known as a conservative outlet, on the other hand, appears to have consistently pushed an anti-cannabis message. Fox & Friends brought on a Florida sheriff talking about middle schoolers handing out cannabis gummies in school. In the same segment Fox anchor Brian Kilmeade declared THC addictive. Fox commentator Tucker Carlson has also implied that cannabis makes people lazy and even suggested that the Canadian government is distributing marijuana “to keep people passive and compliant.”
Against this backdrop remember that Fox’s most ardent viewer, President Trump, has stated he is “100 percent” in favor of medical cannabis and that adult use should be decided by the states.
In general, negative stories appearing in the cannabis (as opposed to mainstream) media are run either when a lawsuit is brought and it is hard for them to avoid it, or when something unfavorable happens in the regulatory environment, or when a mainstream outlet runs a negative story. With very few exceptions, we have not really seen any cannabis media moving ahead with investigative pieces dealing with some of the challenges the industry faces. In fact, with the deluge of content hitting industry professionals, the majority of outlets are simply aggregating stories appearing elsewhere.
I am no media expert (I know, watching Reliable Sources doesn’t count), though I did own a radio station in Florida when I was a young lawyer. And yes, most are excited to learn that I was editor of both my high school (the Woodmere Academy Echo) and law school (the Penn Law Forum) student newspapers. I am, however, an author, and also an armchair observer of the media and its coverage choices. As a supporter of smart, well-regulated legal cannabis, I still believe it is important for the media covering this pre-K level industry to be unafraid to call out its issues, challenges, troubles, obstacles and yes, of course all the good stuff as well.