Newhouse journalists produce special series on the legalization of marijuana in New York State

By Adrianne Morales

May 18, 2020

The NewsHouse’s newest project, High Stakes, explores the weed debate from multiple angles

When it came time to identify a topic for this year’s news reporting project for The NewsHouse, professors Greg Munno, Seth Gitner and Jon Glass wanted to help their team of students choose something that was both newsworthy and relevant. The result: High Stakes: The risks and rewards of legalizing marijuana.

“Legalizing marijuana has been a priority to Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders the past couple years,” says Glass, executive producer of The NewsHouse. “It seemed both timely and of importance to not only SU and college students, but all New York residents.”

Students and faculty in a meeting for High Stakes
Professors Jon Glass, Greg Munno and Shelvia Dancy meet with students to work on the High Stakes project. Photo by Seth Gitner

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The team of 61 students—with professors Glass, Gitner, Munno and broadcast and digital journalism professor Shelvia Dancy mentoring—held their first meeting in September and developed content through February. That was followed by two months of editing, production and social media planning around #HighStakesNY so the project could go live on April 20 (4/20), a counterculture date celebrated by marijuana enthusiasts.

High Stakes reporter and junior magazine major Amanda Paule says the project explores current hemp and marijuana activities in the state with the goal of “helping unpack the question of what marijuana legalization would mean to New Yorkers—from farmers to researchers to college students.”

High Stakes project coordinator and newspaper and online journalism senior Erin Gavle says most reporting about marijuana is crime-oriented. There is, however, so much more to the story, like the farms and businesses that produce cannabis, the health and policy implications of legalization and the presence of marijuana in campus culture.

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A sign reading "Marijuana News Meeting" with an arrow pointing left
Photo by Erin Gavle

“What’s so exciting about this project is that it speaks to so many people—New Yorkers, smokers, college students and people who know very little about marijuana but are curious to learn more,” says Gavle. “This project shows just how many other facets of life marijuana affects.”

Despite the sometimes controversial topic, Gavle says High Stakes has received predominantly positive feedback. “I've already seen faculty that weren't directly involved be really supportive of our work by tweeting out stories they liked. I even saw non-Newhouse students sharing pieces on Instagram.”

Paule says that combining all the team’s reporting, whether written or visual, can help combat the misinformation around the subject. “By having it assembled as a full package, it makes it more approachable for people less familiar with cannabis to learn in an accessible and comprehensive way,” she says.

“I've had a few people question why writing about weed is considered journalism, and the answer is because it's real life,” says Gavle. “People smoke.”

Student journalists working on the project uncovered unexpected information while reporting. Paule says she was surprised to learn that cannabis was difficult to research because legal issues made farmers reluctant to jump through the regulatory hoops required to participate in clinical trials.

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Patrick Linehan, a senior studying newspaper and online journalism, says he was “stunned” to discover that even people who didn’t use marijuana were passionate about its legalization for therapeutic and social justice reasons.

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Students meet with researchers at Cornell's Hemp lab.
L-R: Cornell researcher Jacob Toth, Amanda Paule, Cornell researcher George Stack, Baltazar Castillo Varda, Sonny Cirasuolo with 360-degree camera. Photo by Zachary Krahmer

The multimedia project, designed by graphic design junior Kevin Camelo, includes visual elements like virtual reality tours, data visualizations and photography in addition to written reporting. Paule says she is most excited about the 360-degree video tour of the Cornell Hemp lab and greenhouses she helped produce with advertising junior Sonny Cirasuolo.

“I was so thoroughly impressed with the quality of the work coming from students,” says Gavle. “The photography and web design in particular really just blew me away and provided such an aesthetically pleasing complement to the words that our reporters so carefully crafted.”

Glass, too, has been impressed by the quality of the work. “In many ways, High Stakes represents what Newhouse students are capable of doing,” he says. “They can apply what they learned throughout their Newhouse careers and continue to learn and grow in new ways. From a professor’s perspective, seeing that growth is what excites me and what makes High Stakes a success.”

Adrianne Morales is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.