2022 Articles
Volume 4 Issue 2

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News media and psilocybin research: what is the public told?

Elizabeth O’Connell, RN, BSN; Katya Lavine, BA; Edward Feller, MD

Volume 4 Issue 2

Viewpoint

Abstract:

There is a renaissance of research into how psychedelics, including psilocybin, can be a viable treatment for certain psychiatric illnesses. However, psychedelics have a troubled history with the media and public opinion leading to legal restrictions that have limited research for decades. This study is a descriptive analysis of how contemporary psilocybin research is portrayed across a large volume of American print news sources. U.S. print news stories mentioning psilocybin for the fifteen-year period of October 1, 2006, until October 1, 2021, using both Nexis Uni and ProQuest databases were identified. The full text of resulting news items (1121) and identified articles that cited original psilocybin research for the same fifteen-year period for final analysis (46), corresponding to 29 peer-reviewed research publications cited, were all reviewed. From each news item, the following characteristics were extracted: 1. Characteristics of psilocybin as a therapeutic (clinical application, safety claims, potential harm, legal status, mechanism of action); 2. Characteristics of psilocybin research in news items (number of publications cited, limitations, funding sources, safety measures), 3. General characteristics of news items (personal story, author or expert interview, commercial possibilities and costs, history in indigenous cultures). Nearly all articles analyzed (98%) mentioned a specific clinical application of psilocybin, with depression being the most frequently mentioned (74%), followed by anxiety and/or fear (59%), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or trauma (46%). About half of the articles (48%) included a personal anecdote about psilocybin use, with 100% of the anecdotes having a positive connotation. One-quarter of the analyzed articles (26%) commented on the safety of psilocybin, and 41% mentioned potential harms. The majority (76%) of articles mentioned the legal status of psilocybin. In discussing research, the articles most frequently commented on the study sample size (61%) and least frequently commented on the age, sex, gender, and/or race of the participants in the study/studies (9%). Only one article in our analysis (2%) discussed race and racism surrounding psilocybin use. Despite a minority of articles (9, or 20%) commenting on the commercial potential of psilocybin, attitudes toward the market potential tended to be more negative in earlier articles (2012-2018) and more positive in more recent articles (2020-2021). With the resurgence of research and public interest in psilocybin and its complex history, it is essential to look at how the media portrays this topic and how these narratives might influence perception, policy, funding, and future research. Examining articles from the U.S. news media represents just one area of study. Further research is warranted to examine the evolving discussion of psilocybin and related research in television, radio, social media, and other platforms. KEYWORDS: Psilocybin, media, public discourse