A small item in the April 21 issue of the Reporter began this way:
The unsanctioned celebration of the illegal drug marijuana on Friday commonly referred to as "420" didn't go unnoticed by the Arcata Police Department.
Forget the problem of the double negative. I ripped this 127-word brief out of the paper because it exemplified a problem in the local media. Here's what caught my eye:
Arcata's Redwood Park has become one of the main areas were [sic] celebrants congregate, according to the news release, and the crowd on Friday was estimated at approximately 3,500 people.
That's almost 4 percent of all people in Humboldt County 15 and over. The police were there, but the Eureka Reporter and Times-Standard missed it. So did the North Coast Journal, but that's because Heidi Walters was over at Clam Beach covering the several hundred campers over there. We don't know how many participated in 420-related activities elsewhere because the newspapers didn't follow it up. Omission of a newsworthy event is curious, but more so when the issue is one that affects a great number of readers, is controversial and, in this case, inherently sexy.
Consider another overlooked story. On April 18, the Lumberjack, of which I'm faculty adviser, reported that 80 people marched from the Arcata Community Forest to City Hall on April 4 to support the cultivation of medical marijuana. The march was in response to concerns HSU President Rollin Richmond raised earlier in the year that proliferation of indoor grows hurt the school's enrollment and added to the housing crisis.
I don't know how an assignment editor could ignore a rally of some 80 people in a town of 15,000. Years ago I covered a routine house fire. My managing editor asked me if I thought it should go on page one. I asked her what other stories she had, and she laughed. In Humboldt County on any given day, how many local stories are bigger than a march of 80 people from the forest to City Hall to counter HSU President Rollin Richmond, and how many are bigger than a gathering of 3,500 people at exactly 4:20 p.m. to illegally puff weed while police watch?
Last year I asked then Times-Standard editor Charles Winkler why no reporter on his paper covered marijuana as a beat, since it was an important part of the local economy. He said the Times-Standard did cover marijuana - through its crime reporter. Hank Sims, editor of the North Coast Journal, suggested to me that as someone new to the area, I didn't know that much of the big production had moved away.
That could be. But consider this: I have the cleanest urine in Humboldt County and I see marijuana everywhere. A while back someone from a local fire department told KHUM's Mike Dronkers on air about dangers caused by people improperly rewiring rooms for indoor grows. He offered to personally check out wiring jobs to make sure they were safe, because he didn't want people to burn down their home and half the neighborhood. In 2005, County Sheriff's Drug Enforcement Unit Commander Sgt. Wayne Hanson told a Lumberjack reporter of environmental problems and fire dangers caused by marijuana growers improperly using petroleum generators in the tinderbox hills. And in last week's Journal, a long feature on a medical marijuana doctor who is prohibited from seeing female patients noted that a medical marijuana dispensary in Arcata has 1,000 clients on its books.
Meanwhile, the story didn't tell me how many other doctors in the county write pot prescriptions. Rumor has it that 215 cards are more common on the HSU campus than passing grades. Where do the students get the cards, and what ailments do they claim? I find it frustrating how little information the papers dispense on such an interesting and important topic.
Chris Durant at the Times-Standardrecently did a story on indoor grows, but didn't follow it up. How much more do people pay in rent because indoor growers pump up prices? How much money does PG&E pocket because of all the electricity consumed? How much are indoor growers adding to global warming because of all that hydroponic lighting? How does a conscientious grower do it right?
Omission by laziness or naivete is bad enough, but I suspect willful omission. How else can you explain a profile about Honeydew in the T-S's community section a year ago that made no mention of weed, or a profile about Petrolia that included only this line:
One resident said this has caused many people to grow marijuana as a way to make ends meet and the practice has become widespread because of the area's secluded nature.
I e-mailed both Reporter editor Glenn Franco Simmons and T-S editor Rich Somerville about direction they give their reporters on marijuana coverage. Here's Simmons' response: "In my extremely quick research of The Eureka Reporter over the past three and a half years, I turned up more than 100 stories on marijuana that range from medical marijuana to busts," he wrote. "In the past two years, we have focused more on busts, it appears. This has not been by design, however. ... Each reporter has an assigned beat. If the subject of marijuana is newsworthy enough on a beat, it is up to the reporter to determine that and write about it."
Somerville noted that he'd like to see better coverage of the issue from his reporters. "You're right that most of our coverage is busts, with the occasional story about a CAMP raid or medical marijuana - primarily by the cops/courts reporter, Chris Durant," he wrote. "It's hard to wean people away from that when they know any marijuana story on page one will sell a hundred more single copies. (No lie.) I would like us to do more depth, and I hope that we will in the next year."
Marijuana stories are difficult to do, because neither the feds nor HSU sanction either the growing or smoking; getting sources for stories is difficult. Only a beat reporter could cultivate those kinds of sources over time. The people who have stories to tell but are afraid to tell them need to have one person on the paper they know they can turn to.
We live in a county that officially condones the growing of medical marijuana. The newspapers need to educate readers how to be better growers and more educated consumers. There are important economic, health and environmental issues here. It's time the papers stop covering marijuana solely as a crime and dismissing proponents as a bunch of hippies blowing smoke.
Marcy Burstiner is assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State. While she serves as faculty adviser to theLumberjacknewspaper, she has no editorial control over its content. If you would like to comment on this story or give her ideas for future columns, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.