How To Make Irresponsible Journalism
NBC News has posted this gem of a headline, "Pot Fuels Surge In Drugged Driving Deaths." Like every good story, it leads with a compelling anecdote—in this case, someone who was killed by a stoned driver. Then it cites the following statistics:
As medical marijuana sales expanded into 20 states, legal weed was detected in the bodies of dead drivers three times more often during 2010 when compared to those who died behind the wheel in 1999, according to a new study from Columbia University published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
“The trend suggests that marijuana is playing an increased role in fatal crashes,” said Dr. Guohua Li, a co-author and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center. The researchers examined data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), spanning more than 23,000 drivers killed during that 11-year period.
But wait! Buried towards the bottom of the article are these statistics:
A separate study — also based on FARS data — found that in states where medical marijuana was approved, traffic fatalities decrease by as much as 11 percent during the first year after legalization. Written by researchers at the University of Colorado, Oregon and Montana State University, the paper was published in 2013 in the Journal of Law & Economics.
Those authors theorized pot, for some, becomes a substitute for alcohol. They cited a recent, 13-percent drop in drunk-driving deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal.
“Marijuana reform is associated with … a decrease in traffic fatalities, most likely due to its impact on alcohol consumption,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade association in Colorado.
So there’s an increase in marijuana-related crashes in states with some form of legalized pot, but there’s also a corresponding decrease in alcohol-related crashes. The net result is a decrease in the overall number of traffic fatalities. Yet NBC still chose to run a headline that, without context, suggests that legal pot is leading to more traffic fatalities, which it is not. The opposite is in fact true.
Most people aren’t going to dig to the bottom of the article to get this important contextual information. Instead, they’ll see the headline, read the first couple paragraphs, and the message they’ll get is that legal pot is increasing the number of traffic fatalities—without realizing that legal pot has actually reduced traffic fatalities overall.
Presenting the story in this manner is irresponsible. The headline is misleading, as are the initial supporting paragraphs. A lot of people are going to walk away from this article with the wrong message because NBC presented it in a poor fashion. And now, we get to listen to anti-pot crusaders tell us about how legal pot activists have blood on their hands, despite the fact that legal pot hasn’t actually increased the number of people dying in traffic fatalities. It has actually reduced them. And if this story leads people in battleground states to vote against legalized pot, it will be NBC that has blood on its hands, not legalization activists.