Research shows that media influences views on cannabis and its users. Photo credit: Shutterstock.
There is often a debate on cannabis, and whether we like it or not, there are stereotypes surrounding its use.
Media Viewership Contributes to Biases
Media coverage drives negative attitudes toward cannabis. One study published in 2019 in the Journal of Visual Communications analyzed this. More specifically, the study investigated the impact that different media outlets have in the portrayal of stereotypes involving cannabis consumption.
The study featured the stigmas that media outlets highlight. More specifically, researchers analyzed whether stories focused on racial minorities in their coverage of cannabis.
They explained that, “lingering but fading stereotypes of the marijuana user are those of a dangerous and criminal racial minority (‘thug’), a lethargic and unkempt leech on society, or a young rebellious derelict” the authors of the study wrote.
Furthermore, they state: “the negative stereotypes and stigma associated with marijuana use have been cultivated in part by a long history of racial association and fear-inducing media propaganda.”
As such, the study explored the relationship between “[…] representations of race, criminality and ‘pothead’ stereotypes associated with marijuana use.”
Results revealed, “that conservative news sites depicted racial minorities in articles about marijuana significantly more frequently (26.2%) than either liberal (20.5%) or neutral news outlets (22.4%),” the study added. “Conservative news sites also depicted criminality in headlines about marijuana significantly more frequently.”
Ultimately, they determined “[…] that the political ideology of the news outlet largely influences the visual stereotyping of marijuana users.”
Cannabis is Political
Local Black Lives Matter activist Andrés Aguirre, told Emerald that he believes the officials use cannabis as a tool to their advantage.
“Cannabis is often a politicized issue,” he said. “We are either viewed as “lowlifes” or viewed in a poor perspective because we smoke.”
“It shouldn’t have to be a political issue, yet it is. There are so many people of color incarcerated for a long time because of marijuana. Yet, Brock Turner gets out in three months for a harsher crime.” Aguirre says.
Aguirre, is an avid cannabis user. He said that, “from my perspective, it has always been conservative folks that feed into the negative stereotypes with marijuana and it impacts people of color most of the time.”
Additional research by Gallup shows that a majority of republicans and democrats support federal cannabis legalization.
These negative stigmas, frequently portrayed by conservative outlets, just emphasizes Aguirre’s personal perspectives.
Disparity in Arrests
Mike Casey, a retired police sergeant, can attest to such stigma. As a police officer in the 90s and 2000s, he told Emerald, “I can say that marijuana arrests were higher in lower income communities.”
“Being a police officer in Staten Island during an opioid crisis in the borough, we had more arrests relating to opioids rather than cannabis,” Casey said.
When asked about those cannabis arrests, he said, “unfortunately, many of them were Black men. It just adds to the stereotypes that Black people are lazy and smoke marijuana all day.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that, “despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
Emerald Conducts our own Study
Emerald conducted our own study based on the data provided by Pew Research Center and utilizing the study from The Journal of Visual Communications.
The study came out in 2019, before the pandemic. It is worth noting that a separate 2021 study found there was a recent increase in cannabis consumption, which The Journal of Substance Use and Misuse published.
To conduct our study, we utilized different keywords on different politically skewed news outlets: one left-leaning (The New York Times), one middle-ground (MSNBC), and one right-leaning (Fox News) website to see their takes on cannabis. Pew Research Center’s annual report on the media determined the political scope of these outlets.
To maintain legitimacy, we conducted these searches in an incognito tab and utilized a VPN to control clarity. We analyzed the first page of search results for different keywords to determine their perspective on cannabis based on the tone of the article.
To filter out unrelated articles, we put quotes around the keywords to further enhance our search results.
As of July 2021, there is a difference between the keywords and their frequency amongst the three news outlets. For example, “marijuana” and “pot” had the most search results. “Cannabis,” however, was the most narrowed search amongst the keywords.
“Pot” also picked up articles unrelated to cannabis. For example, one headline read: Avenatti Stirring Pot Again with Purported Cohen Post-Raid E-Mail.
To determine what negative, positive or neutral toned articled, there were a few things to consider. For instance, we analyzed the title and the subheading of each article. We also skimmed them for words we deemed positive, neutral or negative. Negative articles contain terms like “probe” or “pushes.” Neutrality consisted of stating the direct facts with no opinion. Whereas positive articles used terms that included “finally” or “boasts.”
Overall, our study found that Fox News had more articles that pushed a negative perspective; MSNBC had an even amount of positive and negative perspectives, with a similar neutral stance. Lastly, and The New York Times had a higher number of positive and neutral takes.
The media plays a huge role in enhancing the stigma surrounding cannabis. As its role in politics continues, many Americans have the same goal at hand — to legalize recreational and or medical cannabis federally.