City Desk

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."

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  • Jack

    I read the story and it was reported that the man was "compacted". That means crushed to death. I don't understand what more that you want them to do. If the family didn't want to talk to them then they shouldn't make stuff up.

  • WaPoster

    What would you expect from a news organization that has recycled party 'hos expounding on faith and entertaining? At the Post the asylum has been taken over by the inmates.

    Perhaps the homeless should organize a "salon" at the home of publisher Katherine Weymouth.

  • Tired

    What has happen to us are we so damn disensitized that a homeless man died because he was seeking shelter in a dumpster. He lived in MD. he could be like most mentally disturbed people that were put on the street due to the lack of funding by the government to keep homeless shelters opened .Or by the way being placed on modes of transportation (ie: buses, planes) by other states (NY) to get rid of their homeless problem. We have stopped caring about each other this is so sad.

  • Tired

    By the way did anyone stop to ask was he part of our military family? Most of them are also homeless. Also my prayers go out to the family of the 9 year old that was killed because of some young man decided that he wanted to pursue people for their own hard earn money. It makes me so sick. Both of these deaths are tragic.

  • TomHandy

    One question I'd have though, is whether or not something like this is avoidable. Is there an expectation that people will check in every dumpster before the truck does its thing? It does seem horrible that someone got compacted, but I wonder how really avoidable it is.

  • rob in BsAs

    You raise a vew good points here Chris. I think that the biggest issue I have with the WaPo article is, as you said, the lack of any probe into deeper causes. Given DC's long running record of failure on coordinating services for the homeless, people are going to find shelter where they can. And that TomHandy, is how it might be avoidable--provide people with a reasonable place to sleep that's not a dumpster. But that was not a point that the Post was willing to raise.

  • Nadia

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for articulating what I and hopefully many other readers of that article were thinking.

  • Jay

    Oh the Post didn't milk this "morbidly fascinating" death porn for all its worth like the City Paper would. Gimme a break.

    That's fine, Chris, if you want an effusive story full of grisly details about the sad death of a homeless man, but don't try to pretend you have the moral highground in your desire to rubberneck and gawk at tragedy.