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Last Word: Colorado Newspaper Series Shows Just How Low Cannabis Opponents Will Go

I get that there are still a great many people out there who have not jumped on the marijuana legalization bandwagon.

That’s OK. Healthy debate over things we differ on is one of the things that made this country great.

If someone wants to write an anti-legalization commentary, so be it. Just make sure it is clearly identifiable as an opinion and that people know where the author is coming from.

If a media outlet wants to write a news story that challenges cannabis legalization, have at it, but just make sure the story is balanced and fair, and that any conflicts of interest are clearly stated.

All of that is standard, ethical journalistic practice.

A huge axe to grind

But what I cannot abide are underhanded and unethical attacks on marijuana legalization that appear to be “news” but instead are thinly-disguised opinion from people who not only have conflicts of interest they don’t want to disclose, but also have a huge axe to grind as well.

That pretty much sums up a recent series (in four parts, no less) published this month in the news section of the Colorado Springs Gazette titled Clearing the Haze.

As the Denver alternative news weekly Westword puts it:

Clearing the Haze, a new four-part series by the Colorado Springs Gazette, is hardly an even-handed look at marijuana in the state a year-plus after the legalization of limited recreational pot sales.

Rather, it’s a beautifully presented but woefully one-sided anti-weed screed typified by a headline on a March 24 article: “Teen: Colorado voters were duped into legalizing recreational marijuana.”

Trying to dupe the public
And the Columbia Journalism Review, a publication that routinely examines journalism ethics and responsible media practices, says that:

The (Colorado Springs) newspaper teased its project in a Sunday front-page print banner as a “perspective series by The Gazette.” On the newspaper’s website, the launch page bills the project as an exclusive that “examines health, social, regulatory and financial issues associated with the world’s boldest experiment with legal marijuana.” By any measure it looks like a big investigation, coupled with a slick, parallax Web design.

But casual readers of the series would be easily forgiven if they thought the four days of Clearing the Haze was compiled by a team of The Gazette’s reporters. It wasn’t.

Instead, the series is a product of two of the paper’s editorial board members, Wayne Laugesen, and Pula Davis, along with a Denver-based freelancer hired by the paper. The Gazette editorial board is staunchly anti-legalization, and the freelancer, Christine Tatum, is a legalization opponent—not identified as such by the paper—whose husband, quoted in the series, is an anti-pot addiction specialist, which is disclosed in one instance but not everywhere.

“The general public reading this will have no idea that Christine is extremely opposed to marijuana legalization and that she’s married to a doctor that has been one of the most vocal voices in this whole process warning of the potential unintended consequences of all this,” says Ricardo Baca, editor of The Denver Post’s marijuana news and culture blog The Cannabist.

“Everyone … thinks it’s a news piece”

As someone who has been a longtime newspaper, magazine, and Internet editor, and a person who also teaches media ethics on occasion (at California State University, Fullerton), my view is pretty simple: this series in the Colorado Springs Gazette is a hit job on marijuana legalization that is thinly-disguised as news in an attempt to fool readers and make it look like a “legitimate” journalistic enterprise.

But it also raises this question: why did Clearing the Haze need to be disguised as news rather than simply being handled as commentary and published in the newspaper’s opinion section where it rightly belonged?

As one of the newspaper’s news reporters told the Columbia Journalism Review (anonymously, because he feared losing his job):

Everyone in the community thinks it’s a news piece and that we wrote it— and we’re not responsible for it at all.” The journalist said management told reporters not to answer questions about the series if asked, but rather to refer people to a hotline the paper had set up.”

And another journalist, who did go on the record, said this:

It was an opinion piece produced by our editorial board, and I think that opinion and editorial content is an important part of journalism,” The Gazette’s statehouse reporter Megan Schrader said. “I wish that it had been labeled more clearly than what it was, especially online … I thought that there was a lack of transparency with that element.”

She right about that; opinion and editorial content IS an important part of  journalism, but it DOES need to be clear to readers what is being presented as “news” and what is being presented as “opinion.”

A sign of desperation

When the media confuses the two, it is generally because they want to confuse readers about them, and that seems to be what the Colorado Springs Gazette intended with Clearing the Haze. 

It also shows how desperate the anti-marijuana advocates in Colorado are getting.

With the Centennial State generally being heralded as a positive experiment in full marijuana legalization by the national (and global) press, some of those on the other side of the issue are resorting to unethical and underhanded journalistic practices as they try to fight back.

You should expect a lot more of this to come.

The Bottom Line is this: No one said marijuana legalization would be easy. We’ve had way too many years of “Just Say No” to suddenly do an about face and graciously embrace and welcome marijuana into society as a useful substance. That is going to take some time to do.

A wake-up call

If anything, Clearing the Haze should be a wake-up call and should alert us to how low the anti-cannabis forces will go to try to do whatever they can — even resort to publish propaganda clearly disguised as news — to make their case.

We should prepare ourselves for a lot more like it to come.

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