Sensationalist Non-News Harms Health and Transit

Evan Manvel

The Oregonian is eager to sell newspapers. As a subscriber who's seen my rates go up time and again, I feel their pain of falling revenues in my pocketbook. I want to see our newspapers succeed, as a vibrant fourth estate plays a critical role in society, one that can't be played as effectively by bloggers.

That doesn't excuse today's Oregonian sensationalist framing of a story about germs on TriMet. For those who missed it, be glad. For the story, the O asked PSU biology students to do a study and found - gasp! - germs on buses. It was splashed as the front-page story.

The story irresponsibly contributes to the perceptions of buses as dirty, unhealthy modes of transportation. Yet, because most transit riders walk to the bus, riding transit actually contributes to one's personal health, rather than threatening it. Unfortunately, the story - that theoretically aims to promote public health - may do the opposite, pushing people into their cars. And that, in turn, could cause further cuts in cleaning frequencies or transit service.

After the set-up and explanation of the perceived problem, the story notes:

John Townes, Oregon Health & Sciences University director of infection prevention and control, wasn't alarmed by the findings. The risk of being infected by harmful bacteria on public transit, he said, is probably no greater than it is at a movie theater or shopping mall.

"If you could put on some microscopic eyeglasses," Townes said, "you'd see bacteria are everywhere in the environment. We're fortunate to have immune systems that protect us from germs, and healthy, intact skin is an important part of that protection."

One might think the local director of infection prevention saying the findings were no big deal would cause the editors to drop the story, or at least to push it to inside the Metro section. Instead, they blew the story into a front-page above the fold story, inserting a large, fearmongering graphic and big headline. And the jumpline? "Please see YUCK, page A6."

To his credit, reporter Joseph Rose wrote the full story. He notes the concerns of a PSU microbiologist, how some of the germs may include the sometimes dangerous MRSA, and how cleaning schedules are being reduced. He explains TriMet is moving to vinyl seating that traps many fewer germs. And he quotes Townes, an authority, who explains the story is not news, and "many people walk around with [MRSA] living on their skin and in their noses."

Until there's evidence demonstrating people are getting seriously sick from the bus, or riding transit is more dangerous than going to the shopping mall or a movie theater, I chalk the story up to anti-transit sensationalism. That's bad for our personal health, and the health of the region.

There are real stories out there. You've got my backing to get them.

Update: There's a summary of readers' responses over at Oregonlive, as well as a poll asking readers how worried they are.

Update #2: Two takes from O staff, interesting in contrast:

Anna Griffin tweeted: "Criticizing papers for putting interesting stories on A1 is silly. We want people to buy the product. That's smart biz, not sensationalism."

Joe Rose wrote (in part): "At no point during the careful planning and planning of this story did a editor or business manager push me to get the story done because we needed to 'sell newspapers.' That's Hollywood. Those conversations and thoughts don't drive in real newsrooms."

To be clear, I wasn't arguing a conversation - about pushing the story to sell papers - specifically happened here. I'm worried about the effects of sensationalizing something the most prominent expert cited says is no big deal. There's a difficult balance between a need/desire to make the story more attractive to readers (eyeballs bring in income for newspapers, which are usually for-profit businesses) and the need to be a responsible fourth estate, educating the public and helping us make informed choices. I think this story was presented in a way that missed that balance.

I also think reporters sometimes evaluate stories on their whole, thinking readers ingest the whole thing, where as a communications consultant I'm more likely to ask: who won the quick impression? If the headline and images tell a story, I care a lot less about what's buried late in the story.

  • (Show?)

    Good catch, Evan.

    I noticed that just on Monday the Oregonian posted a link to an article claiming that all bike locks were effectively just as good as another, and just having one, any one, was all you needed to deter bike theft.

    It struck me as so wrong headed I checked around for the first three obvious sources I could think of: The Portland Police, Bike Portland and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

    All three have easy to find advice that was 100% in opposition. They all warned of Portland's prolific and determined bike thieves and said that cyclists should use the best bike locks they can afford.

    I immediately then forwarded the links to the Oregonian's reporter.

  • (Show?)

    Let's send the PSU students to swab down an Oregonian editor's car.

    Dollars to donuts it's buggier than a TriMet bus.

  • (Show?)

    They should have at least swabbed the inside of a few cars, for comparison, duh.

  • (Show?)

    I respectfully but totally disagree, Evan! You make a good point about the broader health outcomes of transit use, and those facts should also be reported in other stories. But it's not the O's job to evaluate whether each story it writes pushes people toward cars or toward buses. It's their job to tell people interesting things that matter, and a 40x higher population of germs on cloth seats matters.

    If the story hadn't given ample space to Townes, that would have been a different matter. I'm glad it did.

    I'm no apologist for the O's occasional sensationalism. But this story took relevant facts and presented them in context. It started with the assumption that transit riders as an audience worth reporting on behalf of. That's good for points in my book.

    • (Show?)

      It's their job to tell people interesting things that matter

      I think Evan's point is that it doesn't matter.

    • (Show?)

      If the general risk of riding transit is the same as going to a shopping mall or theater, and the local director of prevention doesn't seem to worry, I'm not inclined to think a higher population of germs on cloth seats matters much.

      The O is responsible to accurately portray the risks. One who reads the whole story may be able to put the risks in context. But the presentation doesn't lead the casual reader to understand anything more than buses are dirty and unhealthy.

  • (Show?)

    The Oregonian is no better and no worse than the vast majority of media. I challenge Blue Oregon to select from fity news stories per week which surpass the current standards here. Make it available for your thousands of readers to suggest and then you, Kari and Jason. can select. Can't wait for the major improvements.

  • (Show?)

    I think the writer of this essay is the one that has over reacted to the story.

    It was a fact finding mission, and Joe Rose reported what he found.

    There could be much more effort put into keeping the inside of buses clean, TRIMET makes NO EFFORT, and that's the point of the story.

    Drivers are constantly sick from operating buses at Trimet. I'm sure part of the reason that is happening is the complete and total lack of concern about the INSIDE sanitary condition of the buses, especially the old ones.

    I also pointed out to Joe, that the PSU students neglected to test the VENTING SYSTEM, which I am sure is home to countless spores and molds.

    How do I know that?

    I get sick every year when I start using the heaters.

    Nobody is going to stop using transit because of that story.

    If anything, people will wash their hands more often.

    Is that such a bad thing?

    The more information consumers have about a product or service, (transit is a service), the better off consumers are.

    This story was educational, not fear mongering.

    I just don't understand why everyone went nuts over it?

  • (Show?)

    I,too, am for clean buses. Programs to train and employ people were cut by Gov. K. Instead, many millions in questionable tax cuts were allowed. Is there anyone who does not know one or more people who, even though they are retired, has children (many with children of their own) who have moved home. Into the garage or a tent in the back yard.

    The Oregonian covered the issue of clean buses as did other media. KGW comes to mind.

    When the O was on Wu's case it was fine with BO. Not so much with bacteria.

    I do not expect BO to change any more than I do the O.

  • (Show?)

    A few months ago the University of Arizona released a study on bacterial contamination of shopping carts. It made national headlines, you can guess what they were. What kind of coverage and placement did the O give to that story?

connect with blueoregon