The Media and Marijuana
I was doing a media training session this spring in Vancouver when I realized that it was yet another workshop I was doing that featured a discussion on Canada's new marijuana legislation. Whether it was municipal officials, realtors, or construction industry leaders, all wanted to be prepared to speak to the media in case they had an issue with pot.
That day is here and even though a countless number of police forces and public agencies aren't ready for it, marijuana is now legal. We'll see what happens.
This is actually great stuff for the news media in Canada because it will have stories to cover for the rest of the year. Today I'm sure reporters will be camped outside pot stores across the country, including 17 across Alberta.
How a Newsroom Works
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the news media in Canada is how newspapers and TV and radio stations decide what stories they’re going to cover. I hear suggestions story selection is influenced by senior management, politics, special interests and financial considerations. There is some of that from time to time depending on the media outlet, but generally speaking the process is pretty clean, simple and isn’t influenced from the outside. I know because I was there.
Many years ago, in addition to everything else I did at the radio station in Edmonton I worked for, I also was the Assignment Editor. It was my job to assign stories to reporters. Now this was back in the day when radio stations had real newsrooms and reporting staff. Those days are long gone, but for the stations and papers that still have reporters, the process is much the same.
It’s the Assignment Editor’s job to decide what stories will be covered and who will cover them. Sometimes it’s pretty easy because beat reporters like ones at the Legislature cover anything that happens there. Most local reporters though are rovers and cover different stories each day. Today they might cover the pot story, and tomorrow it could be something on taxes or crime.
Those reporters also play a role in what gets covered. At times, meetings are held at the start of the day with reporters and the Assignment Editor to determine the news run for the day. In other cases, reporters may suggest possible stories and offer to work on them. I used to love it when reporters had ideas because the story suggestions were usually pretty good and it gave me one less thing to think about.
Camped Outside Pot Stores
Today is the type of day that reporters and Assignment Editors dream about. With marijuana now legal for recreational purposes it’s an historic day. There will be a long list of potential story angles and the great thing is, newsrooms have had weeks to prepare. As much as reporters cherish covering big stories like natural disasters, there’s generally not much time to plan coverage and as a result, a lot of the coverage reporters do is by the seat of their pants. It's fun, but not very efficient.
I would be willing to bet that virtually every media outlet in the country today has local coverage of the marijuana story. Maybe I should use the term cannabis? Cannabis seems to have replaced “marijuana” in the media lately to describe weed. I’m not sure why. I must have missed the memo on why we need a new word for marijuana. I digress.
If I was still an Assignment Editor, I would be sending reporters to every local pot store in my community today to talk to store owners and their customers. For the people who own and manage pot shops there would be a whole string of questions from how’s business today, to what are people buying and what's the price, to are you worried about running out of product?
For the customers, this is where it starts to get tricky. I’m pretty sure all customers don’t want to be interviewed, or even be seen buying weed. Most won’t have a problem, but I’m sure some will. Most will happily talk to reporters and tell them what a great day it is, while others will shy away. This will be interesting to watch today and for the next few days. Although it’s a legal product like alcohol, I’m not sure every customer is ok with being videotaped coming out of a store with a little green bag by a TV news outlet. Business, religious and community leaders may want to wait until the fuss has died down to do their shopping.
There are all kinds of other angles the media will be able to pursue and we have already seen one with the pardon system announced this morning for those with previous pot offenses. I’m sure we’ll see people smoking dope in public places and talking to reporters about it. I’m also just as sure many of the locations they’ll be lighting up in will be places they shouldn’t be. Different municipalities have the power to decide where it’s legal to toke up and where it isn’t and it’s all over the map. It’ll take users awhile to figure it out.
There’s also the policing angle. The media will be asking police about what they’ve seen, if any impaired drivers have been arrested and so on.
The story angle I would really like to see would be sports reporters asking people who run NHL and CFL teams in Canada if they have any pot policies for their players and coaches. Are players allowed to use it and if so, how long before games? I'm surprised we haven't heard anything about this yet, but it seems sports reporters haven't been giving 110 percent on this story.
There is nothing worse for reporters than covering dull stories with dull people and there’s nothing worse for news anchors than having old, dull stories to put at the top of the news lineup. I don’t expect any of that to happen for a long time thanks to the legalization of marijuana. Or is it the legalization of cannabis?