In a perfect needle exchange program, all addicts would just pull themselves together and collect as many used syringes as the new ones they request. Clairvoyant health workers would magically counsel every soul in the fast-lane-to-oblivion onto Recovery Road — at their first visit. Addicts would have the rudimentary gratitude to confine their habit to the shadows and refrain from public displays of addiction — as do so many of their “civilized” counterparts in alcoholism.
In a perfect TV newsroom, personnel — even amid November’s crucial ratings sweeps — would carefully calculate the costs versus the benefits of going undercover inside and outside the health department to potentially jeopardize a program that makes a dirty little secret a whole lot cleaner.
WAVE-TV reporter John Boel’s investigation “Heroin users injecting doubt into needle exchange issue” found that heroin abuse is largely an open secret in the vicinity of the health departments in downtown Louisville and Austin (Scott County) Indiana.
Much of his Nov. 9 report (posted online) features “news porn” as eye-popping as the fanciest “weather porn” (graphics). “How long do they wait before they‘re using their taxpayer-funded syringes?” Boel asks and answers. “Twenty-two seconds after one woman left with bags full of needles, a syringe was passed and one of the people in the waiting car used the needle at the front entrance of the UofL School of Public Health.”
The images are provocative and inflammatory, but not very informative to urbanites and commuters who routinely walk, bike or bus, and thereby know the city intimately. Conspicuous, illicit injections caught on video and staccato confrontations with addicts in flight tend to stir more disgust than compassion. WAVE’s merciful decision to blur the faces of addiction ironically highlights their dehumanization. To the average viewer, they are nameless, faceless, virtually voiceless junkies being junkies.
WAVE would have been wise to review the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, which pinpoints all the toxins in this turkey:
“Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear. Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.”
Another tenet of the code advises against “undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”
To gauge how well the downtown exchange reaches out to offer counseling and treatment to the willing, WAVE dispatched a producer with a hidden camera who was eventually asked, “How many times a day are you using?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” the pretend patient replied, thus defining himself as not ready for prime rehab. Nevertheless, Boel had a bone to pick with Metro Health Department Director Dr. Sarah Moyer. The worker “didn’t offer any counseling, didn’t ask any questions to try to get the person into a treatment center or anything,” he said. Moyer stated the obvious: “You’ve got to meet the person where they’re at. So if they’re not ready for treatment … you don’t need to talk about it.”
No crucial information emerged from WAVE’s undercover pretense. It was a fruitless foray, considering statistics reported courtesy of Louisville Public Health and Wellness: “The Louisville Metro Syringe Program has had 1,102 participants with 42 percent returning needles … 133 people have been tested for HIV, 65 for Hepatitis C, and 64 were referred to drug treatment.”
Boel also made a big deal out of old news. In July, cn|2 reported on the GOP backlash against Louisville’s “free exchange,” where even empty-handed addicts obtain sterile syringes. Moyer’s reaction, “To me, it’s more important to get them clean needles to prevent sharing.”
If the primary purpose is to slow the spread of infectious diseases (which are hugely expensive to treat), then taxpayers — and fiscal conservatives, especially — should welcome maximum access to clean needles as a money- and life-saving public investment.
I take no delight in criticizing my former colleague at WLKY-TV when we were young, unsung and full of ourselves (I still am). For the record, I admire Boel, the most awarded local journalist, both personally and professionally. The great takeaway here is that those of us who routinely do outstanding work, alas, are imperfect.
SPJ has the final answer: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”