Late last month, headlines were ablaze with a study that found cannabis consumers were 22% more likely to end up in the emergency room than non-consumers and while it is not the mission of Cannabias to take on studies, it is the mission of Cannabias to break down these headlines and the stories they accompany.
Specifically, we’re going to look at three news outlets’ coverage of the study: the Daily Beast, FOX News, and CNN. The Beast is a snarky, opinion-oriented, publication, while FOX and CNN represent the right and left, respectively.
All three articles employ gatekeeping bias by only including the voices of the researchers who worked on the study. This is problematic because they must advance their narrative – it’s in their best interest. The CNN report goes a step further by mentioning previous, unrelated, studies that found cannabis consumers have higher levels of smoke-related toxins in their blood and urine and another, again unrelated, study that found teenagers were about twice as likely to report “wheezing or whistling” in the chest after vaping cannabis than after smoking cigarettes or using e-cigarettes.
Interestingly, in his CNN interview, study author Nicholas Vozoris, assistant professor and clinician investigator in the division of respirology at the department of medicine at the University of Toronto, said that “respiratory reasons” came in a “close second” behind bodily injury for ER visits among cannabis consumers; while FOX states that “the researchers didn’t find a strong association with marijuana use and emergency department visits or hospitalizations specifically related to respiratory issues or death from any cause.”
So which is it? We know by now that CNN is a clear example of structural bias when it reports on cannabis (structural bias is when the outlet itself shows bias on an issue on a regular basis) and the story concludes by citing several other previous studies purporting the harms of cannabis, and with a quote by Vozoris that the study should set off “alarm bells.”
FOX also ends its story with a Vozoris quote, but from a press release, which is far more measures than what he’s quoted as saying in an email to CNN. FOX’s headline also uses the term “cannabis” while CNN uses “marijuana” (adjective bias).
Of the three, though, the Beast is the only one to point out that “correlation doesn’t equal causation.”
“Just because pot smokers find themselves in the hospital more often than those who don’t smoke doesn’t mean that it’s the weed that’s doing it. It could be that those who smoke pot might just tend to be the type of people to accidentally harm themselves, or another reason entirely.” — the Daily Beast, “Put Down the Bong – Pot Users More Likely to Land in Hospital,” June 28, 2022
And this is a major, major caveat that neither FOX nor CNN brings up. The study doesn’t conclude whether the person in the ER was under the influence when the accident occurred; simply, they use cannabis and ended up in the ER.
This is not to say the Beast story isn’t rife with adjective and adverbial bias (“pot heads,” “weed,” but not “marijuana”) but it does provide additional context about the study – that 22% of cannabis consumers wound up in the hospital with an injury while 14% for respiratory-related issues (which is a non-negligible, 8% difference, CNN).
I mean, if you’re a bong half-full person, you could read this to mean that cannabis consumers may be more active, may work on their houses more, may actually do things that can lead to accidents (I’m just musing here since the last time I ended up in the ER was related to a home improvement project) compared to non-consumers, but I digress.
Remedy: CNN and FOX could have brought in other voices not associated with the study to add a little balance. CNN could have not used “nearly 25%” in their headline (I’m a stickler for this sorta thing, just say 22% if it’s 22%, facts are facts), substituted “cannabis” (seven instances) for “marijuana” (nine instances), and perhaps covered studies that did not find negative outcomes associated with cannabis use to maybe balance their tone.
FOX, overall, did a better job covering the study and could have used “cannabis” (31) instead of “marijuana” (although the former outnumbers the latter in the coverage 31-23) but the report is more balanced than the one authored by CNN.
And, while we shouldn’t expect much from the Beast, considering it leans into snark, they could have also used an alternative voice to provide some additional context.
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