From Substance dot com
Marijuana has become a bigger news story than ever in recent years. Critical reappraisals of its legal status—which has caused the imprisonment of many nonviolent offenders, particularly people of color—its relative potential harms and its social and medical roles have reached a tipping point. The reform of US anti-marijuana laws is now well under way: Colorado and Washington State voted to fully legalize in 2012; Alaska, Oregon and Washington, DC followed suit this year; and a total of 23 states so far allow marijuana for medical purposes.
As these historic reforms have gained traction, with some analysts predicting that federal legalization isn’t too far away, dissenting voices defending the status quo have likewise turned up the volume. But as news outlets devote more coverage to marijuana, what are they saying? Is their coverage neutral? Or do they take a positive or a negative slant?
To try to find out, we analyzed over 24,000 marijuana-related articles, published between 2007 and 2014 in 12 of the most popular online news outlets, including The New York Times, CNN and Fox News. All were processed using AlchemyAPI, a natural language system that counts search terms (in this case, “marijuana”) and identifies what it defines as the “sentiment”—”positive,” “negative” and “neutral”— of particular words in each story. The results, which were compiled before the latest round of legalization votes in November, offer not only a quantitative but a qualitative (albeit unscientific) picture of media attitudes.
What Is the Prevailing Media Attitude to Marijuana?
The AlchemyAPI system analyzed the 24,000 articles by identifying the word “marijuana” in the headline, the body or both, then measuring “sentiment.” It did this by counting the number of words deemed positive, negative or neutral immediately surrounding each mention of “marijuana,” compiling a score for each word and then averaging those scores to obtain a sentiment for the article itself.
These measurements suggested that all 12 publishers expressed more negative sentiments than neutral ones, and more neutral sentiments than positive ones. While Yahoo.com exhibited the least negativity, FoxNews.com showed the most—nearly twice that of Yahoo. Others, like the BBC, the Washington Post and USA Today, hovered around the middle.
We also took a close look at each news source’s proportion of positive, negative and neutral articles. While negative sentiments remained predominant, some outlets, like the BBC and the Guardian, showed a comparatively large proportion of neutral articles. Others, like Fox News and (to a lesser extent) the Los Angeles Times, were more opinionated.
How Marijuana Reform Sparks More Conversation
News outlets have inevitably stepped up the frequency of their coverage as legal reforms have gathered momentum. While the stories show an ongoing pattern of more negativity than neutrality, and more neutrality than positivity, the total volume of marijuana-related coverage has increased almost eightfold since 2007.
Spikes in marijuana coverage during those years have evidently coincided with certain relevant events. Note, for instance, the small spike in April 2008 when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama offered his views on medical marijuana policy. A much larger uptick in coverage took place in fall 2012, when both Colorado and Washington State legalized sales of marijuana for adult recreational use. A similar spike no doubt occurred in November this year.
Why So Negative?
Given the unprecedented legal, political, social, cultural and scientific developments since 2007, increased media coverage of marijuana is unsurprising. But the fact that well over 50% of articles in all 12 of our major news outlets continue to express what the AlchemyAPI system defines as negative sentiment toward marijuana is puzzling. After all, it’s now established that a majority of Americans support legalization (52% to 45%, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey). This discrepancy between the sentiments of the US public and those of these 12 news outlets is hard to explain.
But it seems most likely that the surprising amount of media negativity represented here reflects some combination of two things: first, a slower-than-expected pace of change in journalists’ attitudes (including entirely unconscious ones) and second, some important limitations to our methodology.
Using the AlchemyAPI system, we scraped over 24,000 news articles containing the word “marijuana” (in the headline, the body or both) from 12 popular news outlets. To identify what it defines as “sentiment,” the natural language system evaluated (by a proprietary algorithm) the number of “positive,” “negative” and “neutral” words immediately surrounding a mention of “marijuana,” obtaining a score for each mention and then averaging those scores to obtain a sentiment for the article itself. There are some important limitations to this methodology.
First, the system was unable to distinguish whether marijuana was the subject of the article or merely mentioned in passing, in which case the “sentiment” might have little or no actual relevance to serious debates about marijuana.
Second, it was unable to distinguish news reporting from editorial and opinion pieces. Although the line between them has become increasingly blurred, reporting is not most typically a vehicle for author opinion. Words recognized by the AlchemyAPI algorithm as “negative” in news reports might be more reflective of negative events surrounding marijuana-related news events, such as arrests, rather than negative opinions.
Third, the only search term used was “marijuana,” meaning that common synonyms like “cannabis,” more often used in the British media, as well as slang terms like “pot” and “weed,” were left out of the analysis.
Because of these and other limitations, the information produced by this system of analysis should be treated with caution.