Karen Peterson: Our job is to cover pot news, not celebrate it

Where does news coverage stop and cheerleading begin?

The question came up time after time last week in the newsroom regarding our coverage of opening day for the state’s first legal marijuana stores. Even the term “opening day” gives the event a festive feel.

Few would disagree that Tuesday’s openings were a news story. It’s just that some people saw them as a happy news story, and some people saw them as a bad-news story.

Legalized recreational marijuana became news in 2012, when the state’s voters passed Initiative 502. Washington became one of the first two states to decriminalize pot, at least at the state level. Local residents and people across the country watched to see how this once-criminal business would be mainstreamed and whether the federal government would step in to stop it.

We’ve told the story from many angles over the past two years as we tried to answer a number of questions. How would the state regulate the business? Who would receive licenses to grow, process and sell pot? Where would these operations be allowed? Which communities would ban them? What concerns would be raised by schools, law enforcement, churches and medical professionals? And finally, what would a pot store look like and who would go in to buy?

We sent a reporter and photographer to Colorado in March for a sneak peek at the retail and grow operations. Colorado’s first recreational pot shops were converted medical marijuana shops, so the state had a head start in opening stores.

Our coverage of Washington’s opening week began last Sunday with a Q & A by reporter C.R. Roberts about the specifics of buying pot. Where will the stores be? How much will pot cost? How much can one buy at a time?

Tuesday’s front page had a big photo and two stories about which businesses got the first retail licenses. Wednesday’s paper had a large photo of pot buyers cheering and stories detailing who bought pot first and where. The lead headline read: “Happy pot store patrons partake in Washington’s historic moment.” After a two-day respite, we were back on the front page Saturday with stories about the first store opening closer to home in Lacey.

Using online traffic as an indicator, readers were most drawn to the how-to-buy-marijuana stories, especially Roberts’ primer, over the news pieces on what opening day looked like.

At news meetings throughout the week, we discussed both how to cover the stories and how to play them in the paper. By their nature, the stories and photographs were celebratory. People who bought pot last week were happy about it. Our coverage documented that.

If people had been outside the shops protesting legalization, we’d have documented that, as well. But they weren’t.

But we also know that running too much celebratory coverage can make it seem like the newspaper is celebrating. That would be wrong, at least on the news pages. We must stick to covering the news.

On the opinion page, the paper can and did take a stand on legalizing marijuana. Our editorial board came out in 2012 against Initiative 502. After voters passed it — with 56 percent approval statewide and close to 54 percent approval in Pierce County — the board has pressed local governments to properly zone the operations.

Chances are, if you’re in favor of legalized pot, you had no problem seeing photos of cheering people on our front pages last week. If you’re against legalized pot, you may be thinking “enough already.” Staffers inside our own newsroom expressed both opinions.

The fact is, this is an important news story however you feel about legalized pot. The paper has to draw a line somewhere in its coverage and story placement. We understand your line may be in a different place. But we’ll continue to have the conversation as we do our best to get it right.