Cannabis Media Coverage in Canada Has Become More Progressive, Study Finds
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Cannabis-related news coverage in Canada has taken on a more progressive tone over time, according to a new study from Toronto Metropolitan University.
In their new content analysis, the researchers observed “a shift from negative and sensationalist cannabis news coverage toward more balanced and progressive framing” over the study period.
The researchers also found notable differences in which topics received coverage when comparing the political leanings of individual newspapers.
As media coverage can play an important role in shaping public opinion, according to the researchers, further studies may be useful in improving our understanding of the role of newspapers in shaping public attitude toward cannabis.
Cannabis coverage focused on retail and governance issues
For this new analysis, the researchers examined articles published in English-language Canadian newspapers between January 2016 and November 2019. This time period includes the first introduction of Canada’s Cannabis Act to the House of Commons all the way until the first full year of legalized retail sales.
Two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, were included in the analysis alongside nine prominent local newspapers from seven cities across Canada. Through a systematic search of online news article databases, the researchers identified a total of 1,390 published articles from the 11 newspapers relating to cannabis issues.
Using computer-assisted classification and manual content analysis, the researchers identified 11 dominant themes in the reporting. The top four most-prevalent themes were “Retail”, “Governance”, “Product”, and “Users and Uses” – which collectively accounted for more than 50% of all of the newspaper coverage analyzed. The least prevalent themes concerned “Infrastructure” and “Public Health and Safety”, which were represented in only 5.4% and 5% of articles respectively.
The researchers also noticed significant month-to-month variations in which issues received media attention. Over the four-year study timeframe, they found that the share of coverage given to “Business Strategy”, “Economics”, and “Industry” all grew, likely in response to the perceived new opportunities in the fledgling legal cannabis market.
In contrast, the number of “Governance”, “Medical”, and “Illegal/Crime” related stories decreased in the wake of legalization. In several cases, the precise focus of these articles also shifted. For example, articles in the “Illegal/Crime” category focused less on users facing arrest or job losses and more on the importance of tackling the illicit market and illegal dispensaries.
Editorial stance did affect cannabis coverage, researchers say
The researchers were also curious to see if editorial political leanings might have affected the major themes and topics covered in each newspaper’s reporting.
Based on past endorsements for federal-level election candidates in the 2015 and 2019 Canadian elections, the researchers categorized each of the 11 selected newspapers as being more left-leaning, centrist, or right-leaning in terms of their editorial stances.
When comparing these stances, the researchers found that centrist newspapers accounted for a higher share of the coverage of the “Business Strategy”, “Industry”, and “Infrastructure” themes, compared to more liberal or conservative publications. Conservative newspapers focused more prominently on “Governance” and “Illegal/Crime” themes, the study found, while liberal papers had a stronger focus on “Product” and “Public Health and Safety” news.
Interestingly, the study also found that local newspapers tended to focus more on “Retail”, “Governance”, and “Product” related content, compared to the national papers. This focus is potentially down to local flexibility in how the recreational cannabis market is managed, the researchers say, as federal law does allow for provinces and territories to independently determine how the sale and distribution of cannabis would work within their own borders.
Cannabis and the media
The scientists behind the study say it is helpful for to understand how cannabis news is reported and how it affects the public, as these perceptions could have a dramatic impact on other aspects of cannabis research.
In a meta-analysis published last year in JAMA Network Open, a team of Swedish researchers found that individuals taking a placebo in cannabis-pain trials tended to report roughly the same reductions in pain as those given the active drug. That isn’t to say that cannabis provided no benefits to the study participants – on the contrary, the cannabis treatments did result in large reductions in subjective pain ratings. But the researchers believe that the largely-positive mass media attention given to cannabis trials could be resulting in particularly strong placebo effects.
This is a particularly complex situation for cannabis researchers to navigate as, unlike trials for many other drugs, it can be difficult to properly implement strictly blinded placebo-controlled trials in the first place. For example, while it is possible to use formulations that mask or remove the distinctive smell and taste of cannabis, if a participant experiences a psychoactive high then they could be reasonably confident that they did not receive the placebo.
“There might be all sorts of benefits from cannabis,” Dr Amir Englund, a research fellow at King's College London, previously told Analytical Cannabis. “But the problem we see in research is all the hype that's being built around cannabis […] with that comes a potential for a very strong placebo effect.”
“And that's one of the key sticking points when it comes to a field like medicinal cannabis research: a lot of studies don't have a placebo comparison, or [are] based on people who go to dispensaries and use for their own medical conditions and their own self-reports of cannabis.”