What Colorado Springs’ cannabis controversy can teach the media about transparency

The Colorado Springs Gazette felt the wrath of the internet recently after publishing a series criticising the state’s legalisation of marijuana.

With its smart layout and parallax scrolling, Clearing the Haze gives every impression of serious investigative reporting.

The Gazette, a daily with the second largest circulation in Colorado, labelled it a ‘perspective series’ and ran it for four days online and in print.

So it came as a surprise to some to find the project was actually produced by two members of The Gazette’s editorial board, which is strongly against Amendment 64, and a freelancer who also just happens to be an anti-marijuana activist.

Clearing the Haze
Screenshot from Clearing the Haze.

Look closer at Clearing the Haze and you’ll see the sort of lopsided, scaremongering headlines that would give the Daily Mail wet dreams (sample: Legalization didn’t unclog prisons; Babies, children at risk; Authorities alarmed over increase in hash oil explosions).

Although these are bylined as op-ed pieces, it’s hard to believe the casual reader would think this was anything other than a series produced by The Gazette’s journalists.

After all, the Gannet-owned company is a respected news outlet, which won a Pulitzer last year for its investigative series on soldiers with injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being discharged from the army without benefits.

However, none of the people on the series’ “reporting team” are part of The Gazette newsroom.

You’d be forgiven for missing this small “about” section, tucked away in the right-column when you click through to a story.

But even if you saw it, you’d be none the wiser that freelancer Christine Tatum appeared on Rocky Mountain PBS in 2012 representing a group formed specifically to oppose marijuana legalisation in Colorado.

And it would be easy not to spot the series’ other ethical misfire: Dr. Christian Thurstone, a vocal opponent to legal marijuana who is quoted multiple times in Clearing the Haze, is actually Tatum’s husband — though their relationship is disclosed in only one story.

While The Gazette’s letters page claims “the vast majority” of emails it received in response to the series have been “supportive of the package”, the response elsewhere has not been so positive.

I have held my tongue as long as I can. Shame on my former employer for passing off as “news” what is clearly a 4-part editorial rant against voter-approved legalization of cannabis.

– Excerpt from a Facebook post by Scott Rappold, Colorado Springs Gazette 

Writing for the Colombia Journalism Review, Corey Hutchins notes the word “propaganda” has been hurled around in online comments and on the outlet’s Facebook page, while ex-Gazette reporters such as Scott Rappold have also expressed their distaste.

Even current staff have been critical of the series, with reporter Megan Schrader telling CJR: “I wish that it had been labeled more clearly than what it was, especially online… I thought that there was a lack of transparency with that element”.

It’s sad to think a Pulitzer-winning news outlet could stain its reputation by failing to make the easy distinction between straightforward news and editorial opinion.

So, in the spirit of friendly advice, here’s what The Gazette should have thought about:

  • Everybody knows what an op-ed is. Calling something a ‘perspective series’ — or any other fancy term which sounds good but doesn’t really mean anything — could be seen as a smokescreen for what it really is. Think about that.
  • If a journalist has a strong bias or a significant relationship with an interviewee (say, for example, marriage) that is likely to influence a story they’re working on, there needs to be full disclosure. Obvs.
  • Bottom line: Transparency builds credibility.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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