Newspapers have generally treated marijuana with a neutral, unbiased attitude, according to new research. But the report, which examined how the press covers cannabis, also revealed which publications have been the most and least weed-friendly.
The study, published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, analyzed 640 marijuana-related articles across a variety of national and regional newspapers from 1995 to 2014. While the intent of the study was to demonstrate how media coverage of certain issues relates to public opinion, it also showed just how positively, neutrally or negatively mainstream papers have reported on marijuana.
Here’s the percentage of marijuana stories with “positive” tones in ten newspapers.
- The Columbus Dispatch: 37.1%
- The New York Times: 37%
- The Seattle Times: 35.8%
- The Washington Post: 32.4%
- The San Francisco Chronicle: 31.9%
- Tulsa World: 28.2%
- The Tampa Tribune: 21.5%
- The Dallas Morning News: 21.2%
- The Wall Street Journal: 17.4%
- The Denver Post: 13.8%
It might come as a surprise that a paper based in Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, would have a lower percentage of positive cannabis stories than papers in Texas and Oklahoma—or that Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch would come out on top—but bear in mind that the study’s analysis cutoff was 2014. A lot has happened on the cannabis news front over the past four years, including the rollout and expansion of the legal industry and media coverage of the subject.
Still, the researchers made several other significant findings. Perhaps one of the more obvious is that liberal-leaning papers tended to approach marijuana stories with a more positive tone compared to conservative-leaning competitors.
But when it comes to how marijuana news stories have been framed over the years, things get more interesting.
“Media frames suggest how the public can interpret an issue or event, and framing involves selection and salience,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, news framing can influence the public’s perception about public health policy including marijuana legalization.”
The team categorized story framing according to six “organizing themes.” Those themes are: legislation, law enforcement, youth drug use, economy, patients and medical effects.
As a general rule, drug-related stories have typically been reported through a law enforcement perspective. Historically, marijuana has been no different. But starting shortly after President Barack Obama’s second term in office, cannabis stories dealing with legislation surpassed those framed around law enforcement.
The study also demonstrated that interest in cannabis stories centered around the economy started picking up dramatically beginning in President George W. Bush’s second term, outpacing those framed around “patients” or “medical effects.”
Why this study matters.
“Although researchers have paid little attention to systematically analyzing marijuana legalization stories, there are a growing number of studies that assess the various impacts on marijuana legalization that have been published in recent years,” the authors wrote. “This study can provide useful information for practical implications. Research on the framing of marijuana legalization is important, as the way in which this issue is framed can change or shape public opinion.”
Though research supports that idea that the way issues are framed in media reports can influence public opinion on those issues, it’s also true that the study found the number of stories with a positive tone toward marijuana has declined since Bush’s second term, while stories with a negative tone have increased.
Support for marijuana legalization, by contrast, has steadily increased. One recent survey from YouGov found that a record 68 percent of Americans favor full marijuana legalization.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.