News out of joint on marijuana

Slang misuse, failure to check assertions hurts its coverage

November 4, 2006

by David Kopel

David Montero of the Rocky Mountain News has been stuffing his coverage of Amendment 44 (relegalizing marijuana) with attempts to use drug slang. Sometimes Montero uses slang to promote negative stereotypes, such as "the wording of the ballot measure is so simple, even the most ardent stoner could understand it." Other times, Montero's articles sound like Jerry Falwell trying to talk jive.

Last Saturday, Montero wrote: "Pot smokers will tell you the most intense part of the joint is right at the end - the roach clip, in drug parlance. The news conference was getting to the roach clip."

Not really. As Wikipedia explains, "A roach clip is a clip, or holder, that is attached to a cigarette (usually a marijuana cigarette)." You can't smoke a "roach clip" - and you shouldn't use counterculture slang you only half-understand.

More mature coverage was provided by John Ensslin, in an Oct. 19 News article about the Channel 12 debate on the initiative. Ensslin evenly reported the charges and countercharges in which each side accused the other of lying. It would have been even better if the News article, or a follow-up, could have investigated the veracity of the claims made.

Linda Roady, an anti-44 spokesperson, claimed that "People who use marijuana are four times more prone to violence." When pro-44 leader Mason Tvert challenged her, she admitted that she could cite no source, but insisted she was right. A follow-up News article might have pointed to the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center: "Marijuana users are not prone to violence." ( marijuan.htm.)

Tracing Roady's "four times" factoid to its source would have revealed that she was garbling a 1998 study from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The study involved only persons aged 12-17 who used marijuana weekly; Amendment 44 would not change the law applicable to them.

Ensslin also reported that Tvert tied the anti-44 group Save Our Society from Drugs to "a Florida group which he alleged once withheld food from children." As Ensslin reported, a spokesman for the group called Tvert's allegation "borderline slanderous" and "unsubstantiated and untrue."

A follow-up article could have reported that Save Our Society was founded by Betty Sembler, who was also a co-founder of the Florida-based drug treatment organization Straight Inc. (Sembler is a primary funder of the national drug prohibition movement.)

Maia Szalavitz's book Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled- Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids describes the many cultlike practices of Straight Inc., including: "Many Straight participants reported that from the very start, they were underfed." Food deprivation was used as tool to make teenagers weak and vulnerable. As the Fox News Web site reports (, there is extensive evidence of many forms of extreme child abuse at Straight.

But at least the News reported the debate, which The Denver Post did not. Over the last few months, the News has covered Amendment 44 much more thoroughly than has the Post.

Bill Menezes of Colorado Media Matters, in a Monday Speakout column in the News, and News publisher John Temple in his blog, have criticized me for writing about the Independence Institute's study of media bias in coverage of Referendums C and D last year.

Menezes perhaps did not read the study very carefully. For example, he complained about "unsupported assumptions" such as the study's statement "the majority of editors and reporters at the newspapers are either 'left leaning' or 'liberal.'" Actually, the very next sentence of the study provided the support: "Denver Post Editor Greg Moore explained why: 'it's neither intentional nor conspiratorial but rather because people drawn to journalism tend to be from the political left.' "

Temple disputes my contention of establishmentarian bias; as evidence, he points out that the News has editorially opposed some big government programs, such as the FasTracks tax increase. True enough - but my column was not about editorial page opinions; it was about news stories.

Significantly, neither Menezes nor Temple disputed the central finding of the study: In news stories about C and D, the Denver dailies gave far more space to the views of proponents than to opponents.

As most readers know, the Independence Institute has a bias against the referendums - and indeed, every Independence Institute paper is "biased," in the sense that we write in order to promote what we see to be constructive social change. So did many news reporters who were covering C and D, but without the truth-in-labeling that think tanks provide.

Polls in last weekend's News and Post polls both showed Colorado Attorney General John Suthers with a very small lead over Democratic challenger Fern O'Brien. Only the Post poll revealed the potential spoiler: Libertarian Dwight Harding is polling 6 percent.

Correction: Ricardo Baca is the name of the Post pop music critic, not Richard, as I incorrectly wrote in my Oct. 21 column.


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