One of the most striking features of the sentiment results is the increase in positive scores in the New York Times between 2016-2019 [Figure 4]. None of the other three newspapers show a similar trend in positivity. The San Diego Union-Tribune recorded its highest positive score (2) in 2006. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch only recorded a positive score (1) two times, one of which was in 2019, but the other was in 2005. The Tampa Bay Times had its highest positive score (3.5) in 2008.
The trend lines of total sentiment in the four newspapers can be seen in the chart below:
The New York Times shows a much stronger trend toward total positive sentiment (p=0.002) than the other newspapers. In fact, although the other newspapers also show slight trends toward more positive coverage, there are potential flaws in those trend lines. The San Diego Union-Tribune (p=0.186) and St. Louis Post-Dispatch (p=0.060) had much higher chances of being statistical anomalies. The Tampa Bay Times trend line can largely be discounted because that newspaper did not publish any articles mentioning psilocybin in the last four years of the study, which means that its 0 sentiment scores for those years were really null values rather than zero-values.
When viewing the total sentiment scores of all the newspapers [Figure 4], the dark blue positive scores from 2016-2019 for the New York Times are so strong that they drown out almost all the other scores. The positive scores reached by the New York Times during the 2016-2019 period were as much as 743% higher than the highest scores recorded by any of the other three newspapers in any year. The highest scores for the New York Times were 26 in 2018 and 15.5 in 2017. Relative to its scores in 2017 and 2018, its scores of 4.5 in 2016 and 8 in 2019 might seem small, but they are still higher than the highest sentiment score recorded by any of the other three newspapers (3.5 for the Tampa Bay Times in 2008).
It could be asked whether the New York Times simply published more articles on all topics compared to the other newspapers (i.e. that it was a larger newspaper in general). If true, this might partially explain why the New York Times had the highest scores, as well as the lowest negative score of all four newspapers (-12.5 in 1991). Unfortunately, it is difficult to find information about how many articles were published each year in each newspaper, especially when factoring duplicates, reprints, briefs, and online content. Neither Nexis Uni nor the search engines of each newspaper provide total article numbers on all topics for each year.
However, there does not seem to be a consistent correlation between high numbers of psilocybin articles and extreme sentiment scores. The highest yearly number of articles for any of the four newspapers was 38 articles by the New York Times in 2019 [Figure 17]. Yet the New York Times‘s sentiment score for that year was only 8 [Figure 4]. This is because many of those 38 articles had negative sentiments about psilocybin, which mitigated the many articles with positive sentiments. In fact, the total sentiment scores for legality and social impact finished with negative values in 2019. This might indicate that psilocybin coverage by the New York Times in 2017 and 2018 was genuinely more positive compared to other years, rather than its high positive scores simply being a reflection of high numbers of articles.
It should also be noted that when the outlier years of 1991, 2017, and 2018 are removed, the New York Times appears much less different from the other newspapers in terms of sentiment intensity:
Total Sentiment – Each Newspaper (excluding 1991, 2017, 2018)
In addition, until 2001, the number of psilocybin articles in the New York Times was not particularly different from the other three newspapers [Figure 17]. (The New York Times published more psilocybin articles than the other newspapers from 1998-2000 as well, but the numbers were not higher than some previous years for other newspapers.) In fact, other newspapers often had more psilocybin coverage until 2001. 2001 was when the New York Times set a new high among the four newspapers for psilocybin articles, and from that point on, the only time that it was not the sole top publisher of psilocybin articles was 2013, when both it and the San Diego Union-Tribune published 5 articles.
The earliest year in which a positive total sentiment score was recorded is also potentially interesting. Perhaps unexpectedly, the New York Times was not the earliest of the three newspapers [Figure 4]. The Tampa Bay Times and San Diego Union-Tribune both registered their first positive total sentiment scores in 1993. The New York Times did not register a positive total sentiment score until 1996. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was an outlier, not registering a positive total sentiment score until 2005.
The New York Times also did not publish an article mentioning psilocybin’s therapeutic potential until March 13, 2001. This was 7 years after the Tampa Bay Times on November 27, 1994. It was also 5 years behind the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 11, 1997. The New York Times did publish on this topic before the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was an extreme latecomer, not having its first therapeutic article until October 4, 2018. (The Union-Tribune’s positive score for scientific integrity in 2006 was due to an article about experiments concerning spiritual experiences.)
Comparisons among the different thematic categories also reveal some interesting patterns. Legality was rarely positive [Figure 8]. In all four newspapers, through the entire 31-year time span, whenever the legality of psilocybin was mentioned, the connotation was usually negative. This should probably not be too surprising, though, since crime seems to be a popular topic for many newspapers, and the illegality of psilocybin means that people are sometimes arrested and imprisoned for psilocybin-related crimes. It might be difficult to find positive sentiments about people receiving a police record and/or being punished with prison terms.
Connected to the legality question, psilocybin is also often included in descriptions of how people have led troubled lives, sometimes as part of a list of illicit drugs that the person has taken (many of which can potentially cause significant bodily damage, whereas the potential toxicity of psilocybin is extremely low [Daniel and Haberman]). Even in 2016, after the New York Times had published several articles about the therapeutic potential and non-addictive quality of psilocybin, an article in that same newspaper (Mallozzi) described a harrowing psilocybin experience and concluded: “Ms. Mathiowetz says she hasn’t used psychedelic mushrooms since that paralyzing episode. (The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that hallucinogens like mushrooms can produce dangerous side effects like increased heart rate, speech problems and memory loss.)”
It might be pertinent to ask what the impact would be if psilocybin were legalized. Would this generally make newspaper coverage more positive simply by eliminating articles about people being arrested for psilocybin-related crimes? Psilocybin possession was decriminalized in Denver and Oakland in 2019 (Kenney) (Weise and della Cava), and after a few years it might be fruitful to examine whether newspaper coverage of psilocybin has become more positive in those cities. Along this vein, mainstream news often has a general tendency toward negativity, which some studies have indicated might be a result of both editorial choice and reader preferences (Soroka et al) (Trussler and Soroka). Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that psilocybin coverage would also often be negative. The recent surge in positive reporting by the New York Times [Figure 4] could possibly indicate an even greater shift toward positivity if it needed to swim against a tide of general journalistic negativity.
There were some interesting differences between the different thematic category scores. For example, the personal impact thematic category [Figure 10] tended to be positive for three of the four newspapers (with the exception of perhaps the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), while the social impact category [Figure 12] tended to be negative. This frequently even occurred in the same year. It was striking that the New York Times had far more articles with any sentiment score at all in the scientific integrity thematic category [Figure 11]. This meant that the other three newspapers barely mentioned scientific research in either a positive or negative manner. Since most of these scientific integrity scores were positive, more coverage of psilocybin research might have led to higher total sentiment scores [Figure 4] among the other newspapers.
Single events sometimes had a strong impact on the sentiment score for a particular year in a newspaper. Both the San Diego Union-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times had negative total sentiment scores in 2001 [Figure 4], which was largely due to articles about the arrest of Hollywood producer Aaron Sorkin for psilocybin possession (among other substances regulated by the DEA). The New York Times‘s lowest negative score (-12.5) in 1991 was partially due to several articles about the fallout from drug raids on fraternities at the University of Virginia.
It should be noted that newspapers are made up of individual journalists, rather than being monolithic blocks of content production. Journalists sometimes mentioned psilocybin negatively even after their newspaper had featured in-depth positive articles. For example, after publishing long articles about the potential benefits of psilocybin, the Tampa Bay Times later featured other articles stating that psilocybin “can make people ill or worse, despite the sought-after psychedelic high” (“Police Extend Offer to a Brave Woman”) and that users “drink this ghastly, disgusting stuff, and they sit around and they poison themselves” (“When Fungi Pop Up, So Do Thieves”). Even the same news event could result in different scores when covered by different journalists. For example, two articles about modern athletes using performance-enhancing drugs in the San Diego Union-Tribune mentioned ancient athletes eating hallucinogenic mushrooms. One article compared the mushrooms to heroin or Aztecs eating human hearts (Niiler), so this reference was rated a negative -1 on the social impact scale. The other article, however, simply mentioned that the mushrooms were “performance-enhancing” for ancient athletes and were used along with relatively innocuous private methods like herbs and fortune-telling (“The Games They’ll Play”), so it was rated positive +1 on mode of action.
Journalists occasionally used psilocybin mushrooms as an excuse for psychotic or immoral behavior. This motif was often connected to a fictional ingestion of psilocybin rather than a real-world ingestion. For example, the December 20, 2014 New York Times article “Should We Believe in Santa Claus?” conjectured that the influence of psilocybin would allow someone to be hypnotized into irrational beliefs. An April 3, 2002 review of the movie “The White Sound” in the New York Times mentioned the use of psilocybin as a reason for a movie character descending into mental illness. Psilocybin might have been used by these journalists and artists because they felt that readers and viewers would immediately comprehend that psilocybin mushrooms can cause danger or insanity. Psilocybin was also sometimes a go-to reference for writers trying to give a sense of fun and whimsical creativity, as when a New York Times theater critic praised a Broadway dance as “Busby Berkeley on magic mushrooms” (Richards). A personal monogram was described as “wavy script that conjures L. L. Bean if he’d been nibbling one of Lewis Carroll’s magic mushrooms” (Jacobs). Another article (Croke) described psilocybin as “doing for science what Technicolor did for the Bible.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change in the amount of psilocybin coverage among the four newspapers of this study is the increase in coverage by the New York Times between 2015-2019 [Figure 17] (although the number of articles went down in 2016, that year was still as high as the second-highest number of yearly articles recorded for any of the other three newspapers). After setting a new high in psilocybin coverage with 19 articles in 2015, the New York Times already doubled that number in 2019 with 38 articles.
The trend lines of article counts for the four newspapers also show this clearly:
In marked contrast to the New York Times (p=<0.0001), the Tampa Bay Times (p=0.0001) and St. Louis Post-Dispatch (p=0.0057) had decreases in psilocybin coverage. The San Diego Union-Tribune has a very slight upward trend in coverage, but its trend line has such a high p-value (0.2037) compared to the other newspapers that this cannot be substantiated.
It is difficult to determine the reasons for the increase in the New York Times simply by examining its articles. Although regional news stories sometimes affected psilocybin coverage, such as with the Tampa Bay Times from 1989-1994 (discussed below), the articles in the New York Times from 2015-2019 rarely had a regional quality. The New York Times‘s articles about psilocybin’s therapeutic potential often featured studies conducted outside the New York area, meaning that any other newspaper could have covered them just as much. It might be suspected that the New York Times simply published more articles in general, which thereby created a larger number of articles mentioning psilocybin. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine how many articles a newspaper publishes in general each year, especially when factoring in reprints, briefs, and online content. However, even if true, this would not seem to be enough to explain the entire increase, since the New York Times did not have a significantly different number of articles than the other newspapers for several years. Compared to the increase in the New York Times in recent years, there was not that much variation among any of the newspapers between 1989 and 2000. (Even though the New York Times had more articles than the other three newspapers in 1998-2000, its totals for those years were still less than the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Tampa Bay Times had in some previous years.)
The change in coverage by the Tampa Bay Times was also interesting for how much it decreased. For example, from 1989-1994, the Tampa Bay Times‘s 31 psilocybin articles were more than any of the other newspapers. Yet for 2015-2019 (the years when the New York Times was mentioning psilocybin more than ever before) the Tampa Bay Times had no articles at all mentioning psilocybin. This was not merely due to a lack of interest by the Tampa Bay Times for articles about psychoactive substances, since Nexis Uni returned 28 articles about LSD and 648 articles about cocaine during that period.
The Tampa Bay Times also featured not just one, but two lengthy articles in 1994 about the therapeutic potential of psilocybin (“Tune in, Turn on, Get Well?” and “Current Psychedelic Research”). These articles came long before the concept was explored in the other three newspapers (decades earlier compared to the San Diego Union-Tribune). It would be interesting to research whether an increase in general coverage (either positive or negative) of psilocybin resulted in an earlier mention of serious scientific research into psilocybin’s therapeutic potential.
Regional trends could sometimes affect the amount of psilocybin coverage in a particular newspaper, without having an effect on newspapers in other areas of the country. For example, the high number of articles in the Tampa Bay Times between 1989-1994 was largely due to an increase in its coverage of people picking wild psilocybin mushrooms in local cow pastures. Whether or not this was an actual trend among the area’s population, this topic rarely seemed to penetrate the consciousness of newspapers in other regions.
The trend lines for use of particular terms for psilocybin [Figure 18] yielded some interesting data:
There was a trend upward for total use of every term except “hallucinogenic mushrooms.” This could potentially indicate a change in perspective on psilocybin, but more research is necessary before making that conclusion. Perhaps while the other terms might often imply research, amusement, or spiritual experience, “hallucinogenic” might imply that psilocybin causes the brain to malfunction. Considering the rise in scientific research of psilocybin, the rise in use of the chemical name “psilocybin” might have been expected, but it probably could not have been assumed. It is important to remember that “psilocybin” was also occasionally used by journalists before the recent wave of psilocybin research, perhaps because “psilocybin” is the term officially listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration under Schedule 1 legal restrictions. In addition, the New York Times was a significant driver in the rising use of “psilocybin” [Figure 19], since it became by far that newspaper’s most frequently used term in 2018 and 2019. This might mean that it is not actually gaining much traction compared to other terms in the minds of the general American public.
1. Croke, Vicki. “‘I Want to Know What It Is Like to Be a Wild Thing’; Nonfiction.” New York Times, 13 July 2016.
2. Daniel, Jeremy and Haberman, Margaret. “Clinical potential of psilocybin as a treatment for mental health conditions.” Ment Health Clin, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan 2017, 24-28.
3. Drug Enforcement Administration. “Controlled Substances – Alphabetical Order.” U.S. Department of Justice, https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/orangebook/c_cs_alpha.pdf. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.
4. “Hardcover Nonfiction.” New York Times, 3 June 2018.
5. Jacobs, Alexandra. “Something Feels Familiar.” New York Times, 1 Dec. 2011.
6. Kenney, Andrew. “Spores of a psychedelic mushroom industry are sprouting in Denver after decriminalization.” Denver Post, 23 Aug. 2019.
7. Mallozzi, Vincent. “He Said No. Then She Did. But Proposal No. 3 Was the Charm; Vows.” New York Times, 1 July 2016.
8. Niiler, Eric. “Athletes are finding new ways to cheat.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 5 Aug. 1998.
9. “Police Extend Offer to a Brave Woman.” Tampa Bay Times, 16 June 2006.
10. Richards, David. “Disney Does Broadway, Dancing Spoons and All.” New York Times, 19 April 1994.
11. Soroka, Stuart et al. “Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news.” PNAS, vol. 116, no. 38, 17 Sep. 2019.
12. “The games they’ll play.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 Aug. 2004.
13. Trussler, Marc and Soroka, Stuart. “Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames.” The International Journal of Press/Politics, 18 March 2014.
14. Weise, Elizabeth and della Cava, Marco. “Oakland in California decriminalizes magic mushrooms and peyote.” USA Today, 5 June 2019.
15. “When Fungi Pop Up, So Do Thieves.” Tampa Bay Times, 16 June 2006.