The last half of this decade has seen a number of US states giving cannabis prohibition the middle finger. In fact, it's become so commonplace that it's normal to see weed sories pop up on even the most conservative news sites. But even though the majority of Americans are now in favor of cannabis reform, many media outlets still present weed-related content in a negative light.
A new study published in the Visual Communication journal last month found that mainstream news outlets — especially conservative ones — continue to link cannabis news stories with images of lazy stoners and criminals.
“In the wake of growing legalization efforts, both medicinal and recreational marijuana use in the US is becoming more prevalent and societally acceptable,” the researchers wrote. “However, racial, criminal and cultural stereotypes linger in mediated visual portrayals. This study examines the extent to which mediated visual portrayals in mainstream news have been impacted by these recent legalization efforts.”
Researchers used January of 2014 — the date that adult-use weed became legal in Colorado — as the crux of their research. Researchers looked for all weed-related news stories that were published between June of 2013 and July 2014, and examined the images that were linked to these stories. In total, 458 images were collected from ten news sites. Over half of these images were collected from articles published in 2014, after Colorado legalized pot.
Out of these ten sites, four were categorized as conservative (Dallas Morning News, New York Daily News, New York Post, Houston Chronicle), four as liberal (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune), and two as neutral (USA Today and Wall Street Journal). Researchers then categorized the images into categories based on racial, criminal, and cultural stereotypes.
The study reports that 21 percent of all photos featured stoner cliches, including people taking huge bong rips, kids passing around joints, and the like. “Relatively few depictions of marijuana users in the US are visuals of ordinary, ‘normal’ people or families,” the researchers wrote. Even more disturbingly, fifteen percent of all images associated cannabis with criminal activity, and these depictions were often linked to racist imagery.
“Overall, more racial minorities are depicted as criminals (21.5 percent) than are non-racial minorities (13.4 percent). Further, significantly more racial minorities are associated with headlines with a topic about crime (42.5 percent) than are non-racial minorities (23.1 percent),” the authors wrote, according to Marijuana Moment.
Gallery — Reefer Madness!
The study also looked at the prevalence of neutral, or normalizing images of cannabis, like stock photos of pot plants, researchers examining weed in a lab, or pictures of traditional couples or families. “Politically neutral news sites visually depict normification in images significantly more frequently (9.0 percent) than liberal (8.6 percent) news outlets,” the study reports. “Conservative news outlets were significantly less likely to depict marijuana use as normal than either of the two other ideologies (1.9 percent).”
The authors concluded that as more states decide to put an end to prohibition, “the media will play a leading role in either reinforcing or debunking these myths through the representations they choose to visually illustrate the issue,” Marijuana Moment reports. “The heavy reliance on stereotypes of marijuana users is an ethical issue, as media representations will influence how audiences draw conclusions about marijuana use, judge the character of its users, and continue to either stigmatize users or open up new spaces within commercial media culture for alternate, more mainstreamed marijuana use.”