The Washington Post‘s “Compassion Scale”
A gruesome story went unnoticed last week. On Friday the Washington Post reported that Marcellous Lindolph Jr. had been homeless and sleeping in a dumpster in Laurel, Md., when he was picked up and compacted to death by a recycling truck.
The event is disturbing, but so is the Post's coverage of it.
First of all, the tone is eerily matter-of-fact. One would imagine that death by trash compactor would be a horrifying and potentially gory way to meet your maker, but this is nowhere reflected in the Post's dispassionate narrative. The probable cause of death isn't explained, and readers are left wondering. Was his body mutilated by the trash compacting? We don't know, because the Post doesn't say.
Second: There's no emotion. Granted, the man's family declined to comment, but there's nothing in the article to suggest that this tragic loss of human life is anything more than a mildly curious occurrence.
"It's so static," Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says of the article. The word choice used to describe Lindolph's death is "almost similar to the products being recycled, the cardboard, you know?"
Third: There's no context. Articles like this often seek out qualified commenters—such as university professors or employees at nonprofits—to situate the reported news in a broader background.
You'd think such a morbidly fascinating event would warrant this explanation. Was the incident a sad consequence of the thousands-deep waiting list for Section 8 housing? Another bitter story from tough economic times? The Post doesn't ask anyone.
Last, and worst of all: The Post implies Lindolph is to blame for his own death! The closing sentence of a newspaper article determines what taste readers will have in their mouth, so to speak, after they're done reading. In the case of accidental and unfortunate death, you'd expect that the article would convey that tragedy with its parting thought. Instead, the article quotes a police spokesman, who scolds Lindolph for finding shelter in one of the only places a homeless person can find it:
"He said the incident highlights the dangers of sleeping in dumpsters.
'Those dumpsters clearly are designed for trash only,' he said."
Translation: It's your own fucking fault for sleeping in a dumpster. No shit, they're "designed for trash only"; they're dumpsters. Homeless people know that. But they sometimes choose to sleep in them, despite potential nausea and health risks, because desperate circumstances make the semblance of warmth and privacy to be found amongst the garbage of other, more fortunate people an attractive option.
Now, compare this to another Washington Post article, this one on a different accidental death last week: that of nine-year-old Oscar Fuentes.
A number of things are different: The opening sentence is dramatic, not mundane. The article is brimming with emotion. While the victim's immediate family couldn't be reached for comment, the Post sought the comments of numerous others: non-immediate relatives, neighbors, witnesses. And the article examines Fuente's death not as an isolated, happenchance occurrence, but within the broader context of the ongoing gentrification of Columbia Heights.
Why the disparity? "We all kind of subscribe to this hierarchy," Donovan says. He calls it "the compassion scale." Victims of fires garner more compassion than victims of domestic violence, for instance. "There are the persistent poor who live among us, and when something happens to a couple of them, we set it on this continuum." To the Post, Oscar Fuentes is higher than Marcellous Lindolph Jr on the compassion scale, thus warranting a more detailed, human portrayal.
"We should flatten the hierarchy," Donovan says, "and treat all of our brothers and sisters as equals. That is the moral imperative."