Despite victory in the New Zealand cannabis referendum last year, No campaign leader Family First is still claiming it had to beat the media odds to do so.

It claims an in-depth analysis of media coverage of the euthanasia and cannabis referenda found that while both sides of the euthanasia argument were given “reasonably fair and balanced coverage”, the Yes position in the cannabis debate received a “heavily biased share of the media coverage during the campaign period – especially from particular media outlets and journalists”.

The news will come as a surprise to Yes campaigners who complained of dirty tricks by the No campaign and interference by anti-cannabis US lobby group Smart Approaches to Marijuana in the referendum.

The No campaign wasn’t above dirty tricks.

Family First looked at more than 400 New Zealand-based media articles and opinion pieces as they appeared online during the cannabis and euthanasia referendum campaign period between May and October 2020.

It analysed 123 articles about the euthanasia vote (75 news stories and 48 opinion pieces) and 281 about the cannabis referendum (203 news items and 78 opinion pieces) and claims an analysis of the extent to which those articles provided “balanced coverage” showed that, in the cannabis analysis:

  • 36% of all headlines promoted the Yes position, versus 18% promoting No.
  • Advocates promoting the Yes position were quoted twice as often as No advocates.
  • More than half (126) of the articles did not quote anybody from the No side, compared to 64 articles not quoting someone from the Yes side.
  • While the No position was mentioned in 44% of stories, “it was typically deep in the story or a very small focus of the overall article”.
  • 51% of all opinion pieces were Yes-biased while only 27% presented a No position.

It says in the euthanasia referendum analysis, the coverage was more representative of both sides, with opinion pieces more likely to favour No, and news stories more likely to be pro-Yes.

Family First did not explain its methodology for determining whether a story was pro- or anti-cannabis and the research has not been independently verified.

“Just because there are two sides to a story, doesn’t mean they deserve equal coverage.”

National Director of Family First NZ says Bob McCoskrie said: “As these reports clearly highlight… the Yes position in the cannabis debate received a heavily biased share of the media coverage during the campaign period. The media also seemed far more concerned about the outcome of the cannabis debate than they were the euthanasia debate, with more than double the amount of coverage.

“A cynical observer might wonder whether that was because the outcome of the euthanasia debate appeared to be settled in the polling, whereas there was concern that the legalisation of cannabis wasn’t so certain.”

“It is disappointing that a number of media outlets and journalists pushed one side of the cannabis debate so biasedly. The media should report the debate – not lead it. It also shows just how miraculous it was that the No vote still succeeded.”

Industry commentator and Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen said media companies’ first duty of care to their audience is to provide accurate information.

“Just because there are two sides to a story, doesn’t mean they deserve equal coverage. Take the anti-vaccination movement, for example.

“Journalists and producers are not obliged to give equal weight and time to arguments that are not founded in reason or based on science, or that might cause harm to the community.

“Family First didn’t have a reasonable or scientific objection to the campaign, they had an emotional and moral one, and that went up against well-documented, independently verified assessments that legalisation would be a net benefit.”

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