Comparing Media vs. Scientific Journal: The Relationship Between Cannabis and PTSD

By Christina Min

Graphic by Alex Jeon

Recently, scientists have been exploring the relationship between cannabis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Often, the various methods of reporting results — popular media reports versus scientific journal articles — address this topic in different ways. In this article, a scientific study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology will be compared to a media report from CTV News.

The media report outlines the relationship between cannabis and its ability to potentially alleviate PTSD symptoms. As indicated by the use of simple statistics and colloquial vocabulary such as “pot” instead of “cannabis,” the target audience of the report seems to be an average Canadian citizen. In contrast, the scientific journal article provides a detailed academic response to the hypothesis of whether cannabis use modifies the effects of PTSD, specifically severe depression and suicidal ideation.

Although the data produced was elucidating, the study has some weaknesses, namely the experimental design, unrepresentative sampling, and weak methods of data collection.

First, the study design limits interpretation of the findings since it uses a cross sectional study, which analyzes data and variables all gathered from one point in time. This design provides only a snapshot of long-term patterns; therefore, the study may have provided differing results if another time frame had been chosen. Hence, it is not guaranteed to be representative.

Additionally, since the representative sample was taken from a Statistic Canada survey, the journal authors would have had little control over the way the questionnaire was phrased and been limited to only the raw data made available. Another weakness in the study design is that the questionnaire was self-reported. Due to cognitive biases inherent in all, there may have been inaccuracies in reporting due to social pressures. This could have led to a skewed result, especially if there were systematic errors in accurately reporting symptoms of PTSD.

Finally, only 1.7% of the sample population was suffering at the time from a PTSD diagnosis. Therefore, the trends revealed through the interpretation and analysis of data will need to be reinforced through additional studies with larger, more representative samples.

However, the aforementioned weaknesses of the study are not reflected in the media article at all. This is a dangerous oversight, as neglecting to mention the drawbacks of the study incorrectly implies that the facts reported in the media article are unequivocally true.

Furthermore, there are various aspects of the media report that are not consistent with the findings of the experiment. For example, the media article claims that “11.4% of the general Canadian population with PTSD use cannabis.” This is not entirely accurate, since that statistic is based on only the 25,113 Canadians who were interviewed for the 2012 Canadian Community Mental Health Survey (CCHS-MH). Therefore, it is not correct to state that this statistic applies to the “general Canadian population” since it may not be a representative sample.

Additionally, the media article fails to stress what the scientific journal made clear: that there “isn’t an outright causal link between cannabis use and decreased PTSD symptoms.” This is worrying, as there is a significant difference between causal and correlational relationships.

This case study broadly examines the media’s representation of scientific research. It is noted that the lay person’s understanding and perception of science are primarily mediated by mainstream news sources. Therefore, the oversimplification of study designs, arcane facts, and intricate methodologies means the public misses the nuances of science. This, in combination with some journalists’ inability to properly evaluate scientific jargon, makes for misleading media reports. Therefore, media reports on scientific progress are often vulnerable to distortion.

Through these comparisons it is evident that the scientific journal article approaches the topic with more nuance and evaluates the relationship between cannabis and PTSD more holistically. One problem with misleading and oversimplified media reports of scientific studies is that they cause patients to ignore standard, appropriate therapies in favor of alternative, potentially ineffective remedies. For example, patients may push for a medical marijuana license hastily instead of first receiving mental support via psychiatry and community support. As such, the way mainstream media has presented this research is both misleading and potentially deleterious to consumers’ health.