When mainstream news outlets—particularly those that lean conservative—publish stories about marijuana, they still tend to perpetuate stereotypes about cannabis with depictions of lazy stoner culture and criminal activity, a new study found.
“This study starkly demonstrated the heavily politicalized nature of marijuana legalization,” the paper states. “Conservative news outlets depicted stereotypes more frequently than liberal or neutral outlets, and this pattern held true in both visuals and their accompanying headlines.”
Researchers also found that “the legalization of marijuana did little to decrease these stereotypes.”
The study, which was published in the journal Visual Communication last month, focuses on how visual framing in mass media impacts the social reality of controversial issues such as marijuana legalization, which is still widely stigmatized in parts of the United States. Many people continue to believe marijuana users are dangerous criminals, lazy stoners or rebellious outcasts.
For their analysis, the study’s authors searched select American online news sites for cannabis-related articles published from June 1, 2013 to July 1, 2014 (that is, the six months before and the six months after legal marijuana sales began in Colorado). They ultimately gathered 458 visuals from 10 different media outlets: four sites they categorized as conservative (Dallas Morning News, New York Daily News, New York Post, Houston Chronicle), four liberal sites (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune), and two they deemed neutral sites (USA Today and Wall Street Journal). A majority of the images (268) were taken from stories published after Colorado legalized adult-use.
Researchers then took the visuals and divided them into broad categories based on cultural, racial and criminal stereotypes. They also assessed how headlines were used to frame the images.
According to their findings, there were more images that did not contain stereotypes than ones that did. However, 21 percent of photos featured pot culture stereotypes. For example, the New York Post published a photo featuring an Asian man presumably in his 20s smoking from a bong, his face obscured by smoke. Other images included close-ups of rolled joints and festivals featuring young people hanging out amidst clouds of smoke.
Additionally, 15 percent of images associated criminal behavior with marijuana, and often featured a person of color getting arrested or in court. “Overall,” the study’s authors write, “more racial minorities are depicted as criminals (21.5%) than are non-racial minorities (13.4%). Further, significantly more racial minorities are associated with headlines with a topic about crime (42.5%) than are non-racial minorities (23.1%)”
As for political ideology, conservative news sites depicted racial minorities, criminal stereotypes and pot culture stereotypes more frequently than liberal or neutral publications.
Importantly, the study also assessed how often news organizations used images that normalize marijuana: These include photos of the cannabis plant as opposed to a joint, images of bud in a laboratory setting, or pictures of families or couples. “Politically neutral news sites visually depict normification in images significantly more frequently (9.0%) than liberal (8.6%) news outlets,” the study’s authors write. “Conservative news outlets were significantly less likely to depict marijuana use as normal than either of the two other ideologies (1.9%).”
Interestingly, after Colorado approved adult-use, the prevalence of these types of photos did not increase significantly.
“Broadly,” the authors wrote, “this study suggests that ‘ready-made’ images of what marijuana users are supposed to look like are indeed being used and reinforced by the media. As more states begin to acknowledge the false propaganda and exaggerations associated with marijuana’s history in the U.S. through legalization efforts, the media will play a leading role in either reinforcing or debunking these myths through the representations they choose to visually illustrate the issue.”
“The heavy reliance on stereotypes of marijuana users is an ethical issue, as media representations will influence how audiences draw conclusions about marijuana use, judge the character of its users, and continue to either stigmatize users or open up new spaces within commercial media culture for alternate, more mainstreamed marijuana use,” the study concluded.
It’s clear we’ve got a ways to go. Last month, popular online news site Vox published an explainer on the current state of marijuana legalization in the U.S. Sharing that story on Twitter, the news site’s account tweeted: “9 questions about marijuana legalization you were too stoned to ask.”
9 questions about marijuana legalization you were too stoned to ask https://t.co/jeuKrlvLFO
— Vox (@voxdotcom) August 30, 2019
Photo courtesy of Aphiwat chuangchoem.