News reports such as this one from Elizabeth Dias of Time beautifully illustrate the problem with much of today’s he-said, she-said journalism that allows people to spout their agendas and opinions without being challenged to back up their claims with facts.
When you allow your reporting to be reduced to these weird games of ping pong — as Ms. Dias does here — the end result is misleading. It is noise. It is unhelpful. It certainly isn’t public service. Sure, individual sentences may be technically accurate, but responsible journalists understand that it is their duty to hold all of their sources accountable with fact-checking to deliver fuller, fairer contexts. That means doing some independent reporting, not merely regurgitating what other news organizations are reporting. That means looking at public records and conducting personal interviews to determine whether campaign heads (and the people within any power structure) are speaking truth.
Which brings me to this poorly reported ditty — not at all the first I have encountered in this publication. Let’s start with the very first sentence:
If you live in Colorado, Washington or Oregon, your state may soon be the first in the nation to allow possession of marijuana—in limited quantities—for recreational use.
Technically correct. However, in Colorado, it would also mean that your state soon may be the first in the nation also to allow full-scale grow operations and manufacturing facilities, retail stores (which are mentioned lower down in this report), private smoking lounges, neighborhood co-ops — and locked greenhouses just over your home’s fence line. We’re talking about a proposal that has no residency requirement — meaning that people from around the world could travel to Colorado to buy, sell and use pot and just generally hang out. So, Ms. Dias, we’re not merely talking about “possession of marijuana in limited quantities for recreational use” here. We’re talking about industry — and an industry that looks a whole lot like Big Tobacco. And, in Colorado, unlike any other state, we’re also talking about an amendment to the state’s constitution, which means people with individual problems won’t necessarily be able to take ’em up with their local, elected representatives to get remedy and relief.
Then there’s this in the third paragraph:
Proponents plan that the first $40 million generated would go toward the state’s school construction fund, which would help create nearly 400 new jobs.
Of course they do. They plan this. But it’s Ms. Dias’ job to explain to everyone that what proponents are planning stands a very, very good chance of never happening. She fails to report that the proposed amendment, known as Amendment 64, doesn’t actually raise one cent. She fails to report that because the proposed amendment’s language is in conflict with another of Colorado’s constitutional amendments, voters would need to go back to the polls a second time to determine whether an excise tax would be applied to marijuana sales. She fails to report that Colorado’s largest educators’ union — and many of the state’s legislators — say they oppose Amendment 64 and simply don’t want money from recreational drug sales funding schools.
There’s also the quickie quote from Mason Tvert, the guy heading Colorado’s pot-legalization campaign, who refers to “regulating marijuana like alcohol.” I’m waiting — but will not hold my breath — for a reporter to write a story about what, exactly, THAT would mean for Colorado. How much would that regulation cost? After all, if we’re going to regulate marijuana like alcohol, that should mean knowing every ingredient in the products sold, right? Amendment 64 doesn’t provide funds for this state to open up the equivalent of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration — which would have been an appropriate thing to mention. And why did Ms. Dias also fail to note that Colorado already has medical marijuana and is reporting a $5.7 million budget shortfall this year to regulate that? The stories are out there.
I realize what’s also happening here is that many journalists view these hastily written “blog items” as just little ’round-the-clock updates that, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t a big deal. They’re wrong, and they owe the public far better than this — especially when the subject is of such grave concern to so many.
Christine Tatum is Dr. T’s wife. She is a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune and The Denver Post. She served as 2006-07 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.