Here’s one thing you can be absolutely sure of: When the DEA finally decides to deal with the Federal classification of marijuana, the news won’t come from some tiny and insignificant newspaper in Santa Monica, California that nobody has ever heard of before.
It’s hard for me to be shocked and amazed by anything the media does these days given how petty and partisan the media has gotten, but last week’s embrace of a terrible piece of journalism (if you could even call it that) claiming that the Federal Government “will reclassify marijuana as a ‘Schedule Two’ drug on August 1, 2016, essentially legalizing medicinal cannabis in all 50 states with a doctor’s prescription,” is about as shocking and amazing as it gets.
Look, I understand how important any action by the DEA on the Federal classification of marijuana will be to the Cannabis Industry, but are we so desperate for news on this issue that we’ll latch on to a story from a newspaper nobody has heard of with no journalistic content or credibility at all?
The story in question by some publication called the Santa Monica Observer — a newspaper I have never, ever heard of or seen or heard anyone refer to despite my 30 years as a journalists and editor in Southern California — hangs this “news” on a single source: an unnamed ” DEA lawyer with knowledge of the matter.”
Unnamed sources are a big journalistic no-no, and pinning a story on this one “source” would be problematic for any publication from The New York Times on down.
When I have taught media ethics at the college level, I dig into why anonymous sources are such a huge problem. It’s a pretty simple issue: Readers need to be able to judge where sources are coming from, their motivations, and if they have an axe to grind. It’s all about basic credibility, and media who use anonymous sources are viewed as less credible in the eyes if readers.
In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics has these two points on anonymous sources:
- Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
- Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
Earlier this year, The New York Times tightened the newspaper’s policy on anonymous sources, requiring that “one of three top editors to review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources – particularly those that “hinge on a central fact” from such a source.”
OK, I know this is a lot of background on anonymous sources, but the problem is that this story about the DEA changing the classification of marijuana at the Federal level hangs on a single anonymous source and comes from a publication with zero track record using anonymous sources in a credible way.
How is the average reader able to be able to make any judgment of the credibility of the person giving this information?
What’s worse yet in my view was how a number of other media sources jumped on this story and ran with it without questioning the credibility behind it. Even Marijuana Business Daily, a publication that has seemed fairly even-handed in its coverage of the Cannabis Industry, wrote about this story and didn’t seem concerned enough to jump on the issue and its credibility problems with both feet.
You would think they would feel compelled to take to task a publication that “broke” a story on their turf in such a journalistically poor manner.
Here’s my take: Until the Cannabis Industry gets more credible media who will go after flagrantly substandard and poorly handled stories like this one from the Santa Monica Observer, that has virtually no journalistic quality to it whatsoever, the Cannabis Industry will be viewed as substandard itself.
Yes, the DEA is going to deal with the classification of cannabis sometime in the not too distant future, and when they do, maybe it will prove this story from the Santa Monica Observer right.
But if that happens, remember the old adage that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Being right. eventually, doesn’t mean you are right — only that even those who are completely wrong sometimes get lucky by accident.