I’ve discovered an odd thing about cannabis since moving to Washington, D.C.: it’s both legal and not. You can have it and smoke it and use it in edibles, but you can’t buy or sell it in the District. Confused? Yeah, me too.
Cannabis is a confusing and complex topic, even for seasoned journalists who’ve been on the beat for years. And as more states legalize medical and recreational marijuana — and even more start pushing to have legalization put on the ballot — more and more reporters will have to parachute into this world to deliver the news to their readers (61 percent of whom believe marijuana should be legalized). But with the laws in D.C. being so confusing, imagine how much you have to know to cover this topic well on a regular basis.
From finding more stories in the billion-dollar industry to learning how to discuss marijuana and the products derived from the plant, reporters today have a lot of catching up to do to be able to give readers the information they need. Readers want to know the facts before they make decisions about signing legalization petitions and choosing to use pot recreationally or medically, and the community needs to know how legal weed businesses will affect their economy and their quality of life.
Marijuana is still such a complicated and stigmatized topic that it’s not as simple as being thrown on the local business beat or being sent to cover the school board. I talked to some experts who’ve been covering the industry for years to find out what you need to know to provide the best coverage possible; whether you’re writing from California and Colorado, where pot is recreationally legal; New York, where it’s medically legal in only the most necessary situations; Vermont, where it’s newly legal this week; or places like Florida and Alabama, where legalization is still a far-off possibility, but the topic is no less important.
Cover the entire canna-business, not just the user experience.
“There’s a tendency to write a lot about the consumer angle, [but] it’s kind of missing the boat that this is a big industry in many states,” says Chris Walsh, the vice president of editorial and strategic development for Marijuana Business Daily. “The business departments of newspapers and other media outlets should be covering it regularly like a normal beat.”
That’s because, as Walsh and others point out, the cannabis industry isn’t a self-contained world. Cannabis touches on dozens of other industries, from agriculture (for farming the plants) to marketing (to inform the public of businesses and available products), to banking and financial advising, to the job market (when people are hired to do all of these jobs). If even one dispensary opens in your coverage area, dozens, if not hundreds of people are affected, and that’s before you take into account the societal implications of the new business.
Legalization is only part of the story.
“The story continues after legalization, whether it’s medical or recreational,” says Alyson Martin, co-founder of Cannabis Wire and author of A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition. “[Legalization] is just the catalyst. Everything that comes after is where the important coverage comes in.”
Two of the biggest stories Martin sees right now are banking issues surrounding the cannabis industry and the problem of stoned driving. But they aren’t the only stories that reporters should be focusing on, and you don’t need to wait for legalization to pass in your area before you start adding cannabis coverage to your beat.
“A lot of the focus is more consumer-facing, but I look at it from the business side, and I think that’s still where there’s a lot of room for improvement and great impactful storytelling,” Walsh says. “Look at the business owners in [the industry] and how they are doing. How are they rolling with these changes and how are they making their livelihoods from it?
“I don’t see a lot of business profile pieces in the mainstream media of cannabis business owners,” he adds. “When I was a business journalist, we were always doing profiles of interesting companies or an entrepreneur or [a business] owner. You rarely see them do that with people in the marijuana industry. It’s almost like the people in the industry don’t exist.”
There are hundreds of possible stories about businesspeople in the cannabis field, though, and plenty of ways to get them. “There are so many PR companies that focus on weed now, so if you’re ever looking for an idea, you can reach out to them and they’ll send you more story ideas than you’ll know what to do with,” says Michelle Janikian, a cannabis reporter who writes for High Times, among other outlets.
Remember that there are two sides to every story.
Janikian says it’s also important to not leave out either side of the cannabis story. A story about a new pot business or the passage of legalization should include pro-legalization activists as well as those who fought against the measure, just as any story about medical uses needs to include not only the success stories, but the research and all the failures.
One outlet doing this well, Martin says, is AL.com, a website from a group of Alabama-based local newspapers. Their “Marijuana in Alabama” series includes interviews with Alabama locals who question whether the use of cannabis is a sin.
“There’s a verse in the Bible [that] legalization advocates always twisted a little bit to their benefit, something along the lines of ‘every seed exists for your consumption,’ and they take that to mean cannabis is fine,” Martin explains. So for AL.com to approach that and ask their readers to respond shows a deep understanding of the unique issues faced by the cannabis industry in the Bible Belt, which is drastically different from the fight the industry has faced in other states.
Not all laws are created equal.
“It’s a good idea for a general news journalist to understand, for example, that Vermont’s version of legalization that’s coming down the pike doesn’t include a system to tax and regulate sales, which means it won’t look like Colorado,” Martin says. “And you mentioned sales aren’t allowed in D.C. even though cannabis is legal there.
“I think it’s also a very good idea for journalists — general news journalists specifically — to familiarize themselves with terminology,” Martin continues.
As an example, Martin says that an edibles producer might mention that they print the ratio of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cannabidiol (CBD) on their packaging. That can sound complex, but what a reporter needs to know is that all they’re saying is, “We tell you about how high this will get you.”
“It’s the same thing as a general news journalist covering some aspect of the automotive industry and not understanding some kind of state-of-the-art technology that’s being brought to the market,” Martin says. “I think that there’s a foundational level of knowledge that would be really helpful.”
Martin and her partner at Cannabis Wire, Nushin Rashidian, offer a course at Poynter on covering cannabis for those who want to delve deeper into the industry and get a basic knowledge of the business and the product.
Words matter, but so do images.
But learning the basics isn’t enough. News organizations also need to change the way in which they present the information. The imagery of the typical marijuana story can be off-putting for many readers. Walsh says that the default for many people is to use closeup shots of marijuana buds, or women in bikinis with bongs, but while those images work for High Times, they aren’t going to work for newspapers.
Those images also don’t convey the full story. There are stories out there now about people using medical marijuana, but they are using a patch, or sublingual drops, which aren’t the typical joint people think of. Martin says photo editors and photographers, as much as journalists, need to familiarize themselves with the many cannabis products available and how they’re used to better share these stories with their readers.
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There’s also a problem with pun-filled headlines, and Walsh points out that while many of those headlines have disappeared as legalization has crossed the country, they’re still out there, and they make news about the cannabis industry seem unimportant and not worth taking seriously.
Still, the media as a whole is getting better at knowing when to put the jokes aside. “Six, seven years ago the headlines [about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hardening stance on marijuana laws] would have been something like ‘Jeff Sessions puff-puff-passes on Barack Obama over marijuana policy.’ But now it was much more serious,” Walsh says.
Avoid the stereotypes.
Another part of making cannabis stories more relatable to readers? Average people. “I’d love to see stories about regular people who smoke marijuana,” Janikian says. “Stories where it’s not sensationalized and it’s not [presented as] surprising, but where you hear about regular, smart people who use cannabis.”
With such a rich, untapped market of potential stories, there’s no reason for reporters to not be covering cannabis, regardless of whether it’s legal in their state.
If you’re covering cannabis at your newspaper, let me know what sort of stories you’re doing, and if you’re not, I want to know why. You can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @EditrixJen. And tell me what other topics you’re interested in learning more about this year. If there’s a topic you think more people should be covering, a piece of tech you want to learn about or a business opportunity that’s got you curious, tell me and the Alliance will do its best to get you some answers.
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.