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.

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