How to lie like a journalist, part CDLXVII

Here’s an example of some typical local shock journalism. It’s a short article, so I’m going to analyze the reporting, discuss what the journalist probably meant, and reflect on why writing like this exists in the first place. (Note: I am going only off the written article; I have not watched the video.) Here’s the story, written by a reporter named Paul Orlousky:

KENT, OH (WOIO) –

Police in Kent are warning parents about a danger most probably never thought about — the possibility of drugs or blood contamination on a rest
room baby changing station.

Claim 1: Police in Kent are warning parents.

What does it mean that police in Kent are “warning parents”? Do police officers have a master list of addresses of people with children and going door to door? Are they posting fliers? Are they issuing alerts on emergency frequencies? Are they driving around neighborhoods delivering a warning message through a bullhorn out the window? Or did one police representative issue a vaguely cautionary statement to a reporter? Orlousky should have been more specific here.

Claim 2: Most parents “never thought about” contamination on a public changing station.

Does Orlousky have children? When you use one of those changing stations, usually the first thought you have as you’re opening it is “How gross is this thing? What can I wipe it off with? What can I lay down on top of it so my kid doesn’t touch it?” Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s only me and all the other parents I know who think like that. It’s my word against Orlousky’s because Orlousky doesn’t provide any evidence for his claim. (I was about to add “The difference is, it’s his job to provide evidence,” but actually, it isn’t! He’s only a journalist, not someone we should look to for trustworthy information.)

An incident Friday drew attention to the matter.

Whose attention? Where was their attention before then?

A man went into the Sheetz gas station on North Mantua and went straight to the bathroom. An employee had seen him do it before, according to Kent Lt. Michael Lewis.

“The employee was aware enough to realize that he had seen this type of behavior before from this same subject. The employee also believed the man who we now know is Jason Fischer had gotten high there before, so he called police, who responded quickly,” said Lewis.

When the officer went into the bathroom, the stall door was closed but he could see someone was standing inside through the crack. He ordered him to open the door.

The guy refused and the officer looked inside and saw Fischer shooting up, Lewis said.

I’m surprised “the guy” is considered an acceptable way to describe a man according to a major news outlet’s reporting styleguide. Then again, no I’m not. Or maybe Orlousky just forgot to put quote marks around the statement.

“He had the drugs prepared on the baby changing station in the bathroom stall, which is something very, very concerning to us,” Lewis said.

Also concerning, it appeared there was blood on the baby changing station.

Also concerning to Lt. Lewis? To Orlousky? To us readers? I’m touched that Orlousky is concerned, but isn’t his job to report the facts and not interject his opinion of whether they are “concerning”? (The answer is no. His job is to maximize clicks.)

The drugs are thought to be heroin or fentanyl. Fentanyl is 100 times as powerful as morphine and could easily be absorbed through the skin, and even more easily into a baby’s skin laying on the station.

Dosage is important here, but Orlousky doesn’t bother with those details. His job is to get us scared. Also, he said there was blood on the changing station, but it is very doubtful an IV user would leave drugs there. Orlousky would know that if he spent 15 minutes researching IV drug use. (And maybe he did research it–but again, Orlousky’s job is not to provide a complete picture of the facts, it’s to make readers alarmed.)

Police fear that most people don’t know that gas stations and other areas with public bathrooms are hotbeds for drug deals and almost immediate drug use.

If he was trying to sound more serious, Orlousky could have written “Lt. Lewis said police want the public to be informed about drug activity in gas stations and other areas with public bathrooms,” but that wouldn’t have had the words “fear” and “hotbed” in it. Are people actually ignorant of what goes on in gas station bathrooms? And are police actually “fearful”?

The bit about “almost immediate” drug use is odd. Does it matter whether the drug use is immediate, almost immediate, or if the delay between deal and use is measured not in nanoseconds but in minutes or hours?

Orlousky is probably trying to paint us a portrait of the drug user as desperate, impatient, scurrying hurriedly away from his drug deal to go get the stuff into his veins as fast as possible, hands shaking, mouth watering, eyes twitching nervously about like a scared rabbit. But that wouldn’t sound like journalism, so Orlousky had to write “almost immediate drug use” instead.

Another fear is young children walking into a public rest room alone, they could walk into someone using, or needles or residue left behind.

Whose fear? The police’s? Or Orlousky’s? Apparently he is suggesting it become one of ours.

I say “apparently” because I don’t think Orlousky is actually sitting at his computer cackling about how frightened he is manipulating his readers into being. More likely he knows that the number of clicks on his news stories will be related to his career success. Being a journalist was always tough, but in a world of blogs and alternative outlets and e-zines and social media and Buzzfeeds, conventional journalists are in a shrinking pond. Orlousky is feeling a crushing incentive to write stories in a way that maximize clicks while not crossing some boundary into non-journalism, and he is rationally using all the rhetorical tricks at his disposal in order to do so. What I’m illustrating in this post is the subtle, blurry, hazard-laden nature of that boundary. In fact I don’t believe there is one: journalism is nothing more than a posture.

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