Alessandra Tomasi received her B.A. from Cornell University and is now a first year medical student.
In many areas around the world, particularly urban neighborhoods marked by poverty and social marginalization, individuals remain in a state of medical detachment. Patients do not know why they are taking specific medications, parents do not understand the implications of lifestyle choices on the development of their children, and the public remains largely unaware of how to deal with the collateral sanitation and health repercussions brought by unpredictable events such as natural disasters. As epigenetic, psychological, and physical health studies make it increasingly apparent that everyday decisions hold lifelong implications, the value of personal and societal education augments. With so many health issues resulting from misconception and lack of awareness, an industry that disseminates information can and should therefore be used to its maximum potential. Today especially as communication through a variety of media continues to promote major changes around the world, the same tools should be utilized in spreading awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the lifestyle choices, preventions, and treatments that shape individual health.
Without information, situations stagnate. On local, regional, and global levels, a lack of education does nothing but reinforce cycles of ignorance and quiescence. It is therefore in every individual’s best interest to remain abidingly aware of the impact their choices make on their health. However, medicine is inherently an esoteric profession, and as diseases increase in complexity, understanding diminishes. Medicine now works in a way it never previously did, with unprecedented technologies and an unparalleled understanding of the human body. Medical journalism can rather provide the tools necessary to establish transparency and clarity within the contexts of natural or man-made disasters, drug development, technological advancements, and injury. The often-overlooked issues are those that require the brightest spotlights. Advancements in medicine and developments in diagnostics and treatments are in fact no more important than the tools needed to communicate this growth in scientific knowledge to the public as a whole.
Our society relies on media each day to stay informed— 83% of Americans, in fact, obtain news in one form or another on a daily basis . Media has been an immensely successful tool in galvanizing social and political change, and its potency should thus be applied to medicine as well. Spreading individuals’ success stories and tales of failures collectively provide viewers with perspective on various medical or health issues. It has been shown that 70% of cancer patients turn to media for information . In the same way, advertisements, documentaries, interviews, public dissemination of scientific studies, and media campaigns have played an overwhelmingly crucial role in promoting and reducing tobacco use in light of confirmed causative links between smoking and cancer over the past few decades [2, 3]. Who is to say the same revolution of understanding will not occur, for example, with medical marijuana use?
In one of today’s most split medical debates the media has already begun to play a significant role in delineating the scientific and political implications of marijuana use. Since its foundation, the media has been largely responsible for the creation and promotion of image . And, historically, marijuana has been associated with unruly and deviant behavior, as well as anti-drug use campaigns . This lens has influenced the public perception and overwhelming rejection of marijuana as a purely unlawful drug. Recently, however, medical testing and research has isolated health benefits of the plant, citing especially its potency in pain reduction and seizure control . A shift in media coverage of the drug has accompanied this change in prospective marijuana use, as interviews, specials, and documentaries have begun to investigate the potential of marijuana in the medical community . Editorials and expository headlines have asked and answered the most basic of questions in an attempt to double down on the true ramifications of weed use: how does it get into your body, and what are the compounds found within that induce a high, or treat pain, or mend neurological abnormalities? Can individual chemical components be isolated to create targeted pharmaceuticals, or must the entire plant be included for efficacy? What are the behavioral consequences, and how heavily do they weigh in terms of drug benefits?
In this way, media coverage possesses the ability to influence perceptions of both consumers and medical professionals. Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s critically acclaimed CNN documentary Weed, for example, provided its 1.21 million viewers with information crucial to educating the public and possibly even redirecting overwhelmingly uncompromising opinions and perceptions of the drug . This particular investigation evolved from covering marijuana’s scientific and chemical foundation to honing in on the widespread struggle to gain its acceptance in the political and health policy worlds . Acting as an educational tool to help pave the way to reshaping the public’s perception of a less-than-conventional approach to tackling human health, this documentary provides a potent example of the expository effects of media on public health perception. It shifts from tackling the overwhelmingly negative social consequences of marijuana use towards seeking to truly understand the medical implications of the drug, as a target for potential pharmaceutical treatment .
All in all, there has been a significant surge in coverage of marijuana-related issues in the media. From the debate over legalization to the economics of contesting drug cartels, headlines have been giving increasingly more attention to marijuana as a national and at times even global issue. In light of policy reforms, journalism helps its viewers follow the shift in understanding of this drug, and in so doing dynamically helps change perception of marijuana as a solely illegal recreational drug to instead understand and embrace its medical benefits.
An understanding of even the most basic medical science provides an individual with the tools necessary to ask the right questions about his or her health. Without proper education and resources, individuals remain unaware of the ever-expanding discoveries in the medical field. The media has proven to be an extremely effective tool in galvanizing social and political change, and through writing, speaking, presenting, and promoting, health and awareness can and should also be spread to keep people informed. Disease does not respect boundaries, and neither should information.
1. Americans Spending More Time Following the News. PewResearch Center for the People & the Press. September 12, 2010. Retrieved from: www.people-press.org.
2. Flora, J. A., Maibach, E. W., & Maccoby, N. (1989). The role of media across four levels of health promotion intervention. Annual Review of Public Health, 10(1), 181-201.
3. Flay, B. R. (1987). Mass media and smoking cessation: a critical review. American Journal of Public Health, 77(2), 153-160.
4. Stryker, J. E. (2003). Articles media and marijuana: A longitudinal analysis of news media effects on adolescents' marijuana use and related outcomes, 1977-1999. Journal of health communication, 8(4), 305-328.
5. Cohen, P. J. (2009). Medical marijuana: the conflict between scientific evidence and political ideology. Part one of two. Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy, 23(1), 4-25.
6. Hall, W., & Degenhardt, L. (2003). Medical Marijuana Initiatives. CNS drugs, 17(10), 689-697.7. Gupta, S. (2013). Why I changed my mind on weed. CNN. com, 9.