Media responsibility was a central theme of the Mainstreaming Cannabis panel at the World Cannabis Congress, which took place this week in Saint John, New Brunswick. These media insiders all agreed that the best thing that can be done for cannabis is to report accurately on the good and the bad.
"Our role is to report on the facts," stated Nicole MacAdam, Executive Producer of the Financial Post. She has recently helped the Financial Post launch their weed-centric digital news platform called The Growth Op. She says the real challenge for journalists who cover the cannabis space is to "maintain a balance between stories that are engaging and taking regulators to task."
Ricardo Baca—himself a giant of cannabis media, having developed The Cannabist at The Denver Post—added to MacAdam's statement, calling on readers to not only take regulators to task, but to do the same to the media as well. What the media writes about cannabis does shape how people see it.
"Just the fact that your daily newspaper covered this industry helped normalize it," Baca said.
"Fact-based, knowledge-based information" is hugely important moving forward says Baca as well as "an open conversation about this substance," adds MacAdam.
Of course stereotypes and stigmas play a big part of how many people view cannabis consumers and the industry. Getting around these will be of particular concern if we want these emerging markets to flourish, and the people who participate in them to not be discriminated against. The central piece of this equation may be in proving to people that cannabis has a breadth of both medicinal and recreational uses that won't necessarily render you inept for the rest of the day.
"The biggest thing we can educate people on is that there are ways that you can consume cannabis and not get annihilated," said Civilized Chief Content Officer Cory Jones.
Stigmas are changing, however, and with increased legalization there has been increased normalization. Canada has now passed legislation that will make recreational cannabis across the country, meaning millions of adults will have safe, legal access to the substance for the first time. These are exciting times says Lift & Co. CEO Matei Olaru:
"The big story about cannabis is that cannabis is the big story."
We then caught up with panel moderator Mitch Fox to get his perspective on some of these topics. Fox was formerly the publisher of the fashion juggernaut Vanity Fair and served as vice-president for Condé Nast. These days he sits on the board of directors for Civilized.
I know they talked a lot about news media during this panel, but what role do you think entertainment media has to play in the normalization of cannabis?
Well, I think lifestyle media has a real responsibility to show all the different lifestyles that are associated with the use of cannabis. And I think by and large what you find is most people who enjoy cannabis have a healthy relationship with the product and use it in a responsible way. And that image is one that I think needs to be perpetuated in lifestyle media, both cannabis-related and in mainstream.
What can the media do to mitigate the spread of misinformation around cannabis?
In general, and around cannabis, the media has a very difficult problem of correcting news that's not accurate. Because, unless you know if someone else publishes an article with inaccurate information there's not much anyone else can do other than put their nose to the grindstone and make sure that the news and the articles that they're publishing are fact-checked and are accurate. And they just have to stay the course. There is no news or media organization that is perfect but having an open and dynamic media in our society is one of the very foundations of our democracy and I think we have to just continue to remind ourselves of the importance of media and remind our selves it's not perfect. And unless you are maliciously and deliberately publishing falsehoods, just like everything else it is human nature driven, which means it might, on occasion, not be perfect.
Can the media do anything to repair the years of perpetuating stereotypes and falsehoods?
I think that the media is working hard to reverse some of those stereotypes of people who used cannabis when it was contraband. And while most people who used cannabis in a healthy responsible way when it was contraband stayed in the cannabis closet and the only people who raised their hands and said, 'Sure I smoke pot and I'm proud of it' tended to people who use pot a great deal. And while that number may not be very large, and certainly the people may not be representative of the pot-smoking community at large, that's what the media saw, that's what they wrote about. That's what they effectively promoted and now we're in the process of finding all of those people who had been in the cannabis closet and saying to them, 'it's safe to come out now.' So you're seeing a lot of that now. You see that certainly in Civilized, but you also see a lot of other mainstream media when they sort of talk about sales of marijuana, the business of marijuana.
I know you have a long history in fashion publications. What are the crossovers between fashion media and cannabis media?
I guess the crossover is really just about finding a person's interest and creating stories and great storytelling to get inside their value system so that your story can connect and resonate with them. Fashion, cooking, travel, cannabis: all of these are interests that people have and if you write about it in a thoughtful, intelligent way you typically can get them to recognize it. Get inside their value system they put up around themselves to keep other subjects out and then you can have yourself a real relationship with that audience that could be very valuable and sustainable.
Does design have a role to play in normalizing the cannabis community?
I feel strongly that design plays a role. I feel really strongly that the imagery created by some of the artwork and photography have really over time set the industry back a bit by creating negative stereotypes. And I can't help but notice that so many cannabis companies who have paid attention to the design of their logo, packaging and messaging are beautiful, sophisticated, intricate and really speak to a much wider audience than say some of the other images that we've seen over time. They are usually phallic-related, cartoon-related, male-related. All of that feels very old and from another era, it's kind of a thing of the past now.
When we're talking about the heavy restrictions on advertising and marketing what do you think is the best route for businesses to take?
I think that we have to have restrictions on marketing messages in advertising, undeniably. However, every company, and every smart marketer, and every smart agency is always faced with restrictions. So it's only a matter of thinking your way out of that problem to get an effective message about your company, or brand, or product into the marketplace and in front of the target audience for your your product. That's all it is. It's just another business challenge to overcome. And it's not even a particularly very difficult one because all of the rules are very clearly spelled out.
Do you think cannabis media is going to change?
Well it has to, because no one wants to read only about cannabis. And if you really enjoy cannabis you probably travel, you probably love theater and movies and music, you probably love to entertain. There is a very high likelihood that you like to drink liquor and eat well, in both restaurants and cooking at home. So that's what cannabis media is going to become. And in many cases, like Civilized again, has already become. It is very often through a filter of cannabis, but very often it is not.