28 Aug The Daily Telegraph Judged ‘Inaccurate, Misleading And Distorted’ On Cannabis Reporting

Telegraph logo

“Inaccurate, Misleading And Distorted” On Cannabis.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has upheld CLEAR’s complaint about The Daily Telegraph’s appalling misreporting in April 2014 of a study on the brains of cannabis users.

The newspaper claimed falsely that the study showed “Experimenting with cannabis on a casual basis damages the brain permanently”. The original complaint can be seen here. A correction has been published in today’s edition of the newspaper and the online version of the original article has been amended.

Dr Jodi Gilman, author of the study, immediately went on record about inaccurate reporting of her work, insisting that there was no suggestion that cannabis had caused differences in the brain or that such differences could be regarded as ‘damage‘ or ‘permanent‘.

Nevertheless, the newspaper has fought an intensive and concerted battle through the PCC. It has attempted to justify its misreporting through lengthy and complex correspondence in which it adduced other research and blatantly contradicted Dr Gilman. The PCC has only upheld CLEAR’s complaint in respect of the description of the differences as ‘permanent‘. Despite Dr Gilman’s own words, the PCC has failed to rule on the other blatant inaccuracies in the original, scurrilous article attributed to the newspaper’s ‘Medical Editor’, Rebecca Smith.

Along with The Daily Mail, the Telegraph has a long record of inaccurate and sensationalist scaremongering about cannabis. In recent months, as more and more evidence has emerged about medicinal benefits, both newspapers have been forced to report on positive aspects of cannabis. However, whenever the opportunity arises to return to ‘reefer madness’ and the demonisation of cannabis users, both are in the front line.

The full record of the PCC’s decision is reproduced below.

Commission’s decision in the case of Reynolds v The Daily Telegraph

The complainant said that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article reporting the results of an academic study on the effects of cannabis on the brain. The complainant identified what he believed to be a number of inaccuracies in the article.

Clause 1 (i) states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.” Clause 1 (ii) states that “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

He said that it was inaccurate to state, on the basis of the results of the study, that casual experimentation with cannabis causes permanent damage to the brain. He said that the words “damage” and “permanent” did not appear in the study at all, and that there was no evidence of causation.

The Commission noted that the study had at no point referred to the observed deformations as being permanent, or suggested that they could not revert over time. On this point, the Commission found that there had been a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code. The inaccuracy was significant and, as such, the newspaper was required to take remedial action, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The offer of a printed correction, along with changes to the online article and an appended correction to that article, were sufficient to remedy the established breach of Clause 1 (i) on this issue.

The Commission next considered the complainant’s concerns that the study had not referred to “damage” caused by cannabis, or suggested that cannabis was the cause of the observed changes. He had also said that one of the authors of the study, Dr Jodi Gilman, had stated that the study had not shown that cannabis caused changes in the shape of the brain. The Commission noted that the study stated that sections of the brain were “deformed inwards and this diminishment was highly correlated with drug use behaviour”. It also stated that “alterations in left nucleus accumbens volume were associated, at trend level, with both the number of joints per occasion and smoking occasions per day”, that “nucleus accumbens volume was increased in marijuana users and was associated with drug use measures”, and that repeated references were made to “exposure-dependent alterations”. The Commission found that it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to refer to these effects as “damage”, or to state that the study had found that cannabis had caused the observed deformations. The Commission made clear that, without the involvement of one or more of the academics involved in the study, it would not be able to establish if the authors considered that the newspaper’s article had significantly distorted their findings. It also noted that it had not received a complaint from them.

The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim, in relation to cannabis, that experts had said that “no one under the age of 30 should ever use it”, when one of the authors of the study, Dr Hans Breiter, had simply said that he had “developed a severe worry about whether we should be allowing anybody under age 30 to use pot.” The Commission found the two statements to be very similar in substance. In any case, the newspaper said that the quotation under dispute had been provided to it during conversations directly with the reporter, and was not based on the quotation provided by the complainant. The Commission established no failure to take care over the accuracy of the quotation, and also that it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading, such that a correction or clarification would be required under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. It further noted that no complaint had been received from Dr Breiter over the accuracy of the quotation.

The Commission next considered the complaint that it was inaccurate to state that the scientists had studied the amounts of cannabis used by 40 subjects, when only 20 cannabis users had been studied. It noted that 40 people were studied, 20 of whom were cannabis users, and 20 of whom were not. It was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to state in the article that “the scientists found that the more cannabis the 40 subjects had used, the greater the abnormalities.” The amount of cannabis used by each subject was central to the study, even if 20 of the subjects’ cannabis use was nil. The Commission did not find a breach of the Code on this point.

The complainant said that the article had distorted the study on which it was reporting, and presented a misleading picture of the current research on the effects of cannabis use. He said that Dr Gilman had publicly condemned the widespread misreporting of the study’s results. The Commission made clear that the newspaper was entitled to rely on the content of the study, even if one of its authors had later disputed the way in which it was being interpreted. It noted that a complaint had not been received from one or more of the researchers. Finally, the newspaper was under no obligation to include information on the possible benefits of cannabis use, which is a matter of selection of material and is at the discretion of the editor.

The newspaper had appropriately delayed publication of the proposed correction and the amendment of the online article, pending the approval of the Commission. In light of the Commission’s decision, it should now promptly publish the correction and make the agreed online amendments.