When journalists hide marijuana use

Jan 03, 14 When journalists hide marijuana use

I’m just adding this internal memo, sent to The Denver Post’s staff Dec. 31 by Linda Shapley, director of newsroom operations, to our files.

Earlier the same day, The New York Daily News called, asking if I could file a story about the opening of Colorado’s new head shops, er, recreational marijuana stores. I very quickly explained to the assignment editor that I’m married to Dr. Christian Thurstone, a world-recognized expert on adolescent marijuana addiction and its treatment; that I have studied the science of marijuana and many public records related to the marijuana industry’s claims; and that I have stated in no uncertain terms publicly that weed legalization is a very bad idea given everything I have studied and have, very sadly, witnessed because of my husband’s work. “I don’t pretend not to have strong opinions on this subject,” I added for good measure.

The Daily News editor and I agreed I would not be the right person for that assignment.

So, why is it all right for journalists who use marijuana to present to the public the pros and cons of this addictive drug’s legalization? Why are they the appropriate people to explain the health consequences of the drug’s use? After all, they don’t just have opinions — as one would have about a Democratic candidate or a Republican legislative agenda. They actually use the substance and hide their use. And they’ve been hiding their use for years, consciously deciding it would be all right to break federal and (until relatively recently) state laws. We’re now supposed to believe they have open minds about the science of marijuana’s harms to health and the policy analyses warning that marijuana legalization is a very bad idea?

So, this is one of those times when I hope more people will force journalists to open up about who they really are. “Do you use marijuana?” It’s a very fair question to ask reporters who cover the subject — just as it’s fair to look up their voter registrations or to come right out and ask them their political party affiliation if they want to talk politics with you. It’s also fair to ask journalists their religious affiliation, or lack thereof, if they want to ask questions about your faith, or lack thereof.

“Those things are not an interview subject’s business, and they don’t matter as long as I’m accurate and fair,” many journalists will say.

I’m not buying that — and I never have because openness, honesty, transparency and accountability are what journalism demands of others, and should certainly demand of itself. Newsrooms also spin on this old saying: “The appearance of impropriety is as bad as impropriety itself.” The same is true for the appearance of bias — an appearance made worse when we’re hiding rather than being truthful.

We know objectivity is a noble myth, an aspiration, but that accuracy and fairness are attainable. They are much more easily attained when reporter and subject know where the other stands on the issue they’re discussing and can hold each other accountable for getting the story right.

That internal Denver Post memo:

Hey all –

As we enter the hazy new realm of cannabis, we’re looking for you to use your wisest judgment on what you broadcast socially in relation to your personal use. It is not our intention to control your private lives, but your actions could compromise your (and The Post’s) credibility, so we expect you to follow our social media guidelines. Posts, tweets, images, Tumblrs, etc of your cannabis use could raise questions about your objectivity (this is similar to our stance on airing your political views). If you need a refresher, check out the Social Media Guidelines in our ethics policy, found on DP web in the left rail.

In addition, yesterday’s email on “liking” The Cannabist FB page was a suggestion. If you are uncomfortable or against pot usage, of course you do not have to like the page.

One last thing, which goes without saying: If you’re covering the events tomorrow, you’re working and not allowed to partake.

Thanks, and let’s have fun covering this historic moment.

Christine Tatum is a former staff writer for The Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. She served as 2006-07 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and has helped to lead several projects and initiatives focused on journalism ethics. Learn more about her here.

2 Comments

  1. Thomas Kimbrough /

    I agree that it’s a fair question to ask whether a journalist who covers cannabis issues actually uses cannabis. I somehow doubt that this question would be dodged though for any reason other than the fact that being open about one’s use could lead to greater scrutiny from the authorities, and in many states, a visit from gun-toting men who will eagerly kick down your door and shoot your pets. Any impulse to hide their activities is a reflection of nothing more than a desire to avoid being fined, arrested, imprisoned, and/or branded with a criminal record. You really expect people to be more open in this environment, given the potential consequences that people such as your husband are advocating? This essential distinction renders your comparison to political party and religious affiliation invalid. By the very policies you promote, you have destroyed the capacity for the terms of the social discussion that you suggest to be met.

    • Great! You agree it’s fair to ask journalists covering marijuana whether they use the drug. Other journalists know as well as I do that breaking the law is breaking the law, and they shouldn’t be breaking the law — especially if they think they’re going to hold other people accountable for enforcing it.
      As for the shoot-’em-up scenario you’ve crafted, all of that would make a great movie — but outside of the halls of theatre, it’s really just more of the over-the-top banter and deflection typically served up by pot advocates. Many years of public records collected at the state and federal levels show there’s practically no one in the United States imprisoned only for marijuana use. I suspect the number of animals police officers have killed with no reasonable cause to do so during investigations is also pretty low — but you’re welcome to conduct those record searches because I have other areas of focus.
      As for law enforcement and where my husband and I stand as it pertains to marijuana possession and use: you’ve misrepresented our views, which we’ve also shared very publicly on numerous occasions. We know our country doesn’t have to legalize weed to reform problematic laws, and we invite people to read more about that from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM.

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