Media mistakes in covering a police video illustrate unaddressed problems

By not independently investigating claims before publishing them, news outlets fail their audiences.

Last week, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department posted a video of an officer supposedly overdosing from contact with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Titled, “The Dangers of Fentanyl,” the video is a dramatic 4-minute public service announcement promoting the importance of having naloxone on hand.

“Being exposed to just a few small grains of fentanyl could have deadly consequences,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore says at the end of the clip.

It’s heartwrenching, but is it real? Well… probably not… at least not entirely.

“Medical experts have said that it is impossible to overdose on fentanyl simply through exposure,” read the video’s write-up in The New York Times. “And suggested that misinformation about contact highs does little to help curb the opioid crisis.”

The Times quotes Northeastern University professor of law and health sciences Leo Beletsky as saying that “it is not biologically possible” to overdose on fentanyl simply from touching it or being exposed to it. Beletsky speculates that the deputy’s reaction may be the result of “enormous stress and panic among law enforcement officers around this issue.”

He added that reactions to fentanyl such as Deputy Faiivae’s tend to be reported only by police departments or drug administrations, and rarely has a toxicology report or a medical follow-up shown that an officer, in fact, overdosed on fentanyl.

The Times’ coverage was great. Unfortunately, other media outlets ran with the SDCSD’s narrative without question.

I’m not here to lecture the SDCSD about its video, nor am I here to comment on the specifics of fentanyl overdoses. Both issues are outside of my area of expertise. Media, on the other hand, is something firmly within my wheelhouse, and I have a few things to say on the matter.

Authority bias is real, and media outlets have a responsibility to fight it.

Read the three headlines above. “Fentanyl exposure knocks officer off his feet in seconds,” “Sheriff’s deputy overdoses after being exposed to fentanyl during arrest,” “Bodycam footage captures deputy accidentally overdosing on Fentanyl.”

Notice anything? They all state the fentanyl overdose as a fact, based on nothing more than the SDCSD’s word.

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For years, police departments around the country have misled the press and public on a host of issues, big and small. A Kansas police officer falsely claimed that McDonald’s baristas printed the words “f*cking pig” on his cup. An off-duty Los Angeles police officer once falsely accused a Starbucks location of “intentionally” putting what he believed to be a tampon in his drink. Last year, a trio of New York police officers falsely claimed to have been “intentionally poisoned” by employees at a Shake Shack location.

The NYPD’s Detectives’ Endowment Association claimed that “three of our fellow officers were intentionally poisoned by one or more workers at” a local Shake Shack location. The officers later admitted this never happened.

And these are just a handful of examples of the long list of well-documented lies police have told, seemingly in attempts to create the impression that police are somehow “under attack” by fast-food workers. Reporters, who are used to just taking the police at their word, sometimes amplify the stories without verifying them first.

In the case of the Starbucks “tampon” story, a Fox LA reporter tweeted out not just the unsubstantiated claim, but also quoted the Los Angeles Police Protective League asserting that it was a “disgusting assault on a police officer” that “was carried out by someone with hatred in their heart and who lacks human decency.”

Journalists have a moral and ethical responsibility to get stories right, not first. It’s questionable if allegations of food poisoning are newsworthy in themselves, let alone unsubstantiated allegations of food poisoning. Both the Shake Shack story and the Starbucks “tampon” story came weeks after one of the most blatant police lies in recent memory: the murder of George Floyd.

Some lies are low-stakes. Others, like the Minneapolis Police Department’s original description of George Floyd’s death, are the opposite.

Let’s remember how the Minneapolis Police Department described the events that led to George Floyd’s death:

Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction

May 25, 2020 (MINNEAPOLIS) On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress.  Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car.  He was ordered to step from his car.  After he got out, he physically resisted officers.  Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.

No officers were injured in the incident.

Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.

There’s absolutely nothing in that statement that would even clue readers to the fact that Floyd died after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for several minutes, murdering him. It is thoroughly misleading — but certainly not unexpected.

Thankfully, Chauvin’s actions were caught on video and posted to Facebook by Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old who just happened to be in the area. Had she not been there, it’s entirely possible that MPD’s statement on the arrest could have become the story accepted by the press and, in turn, the general public.

The press needs to apply the same scrutiny to claims made by police as they do to claims made by anybody else. That this hasn’t happened yet is worrying.

I’m far from the first person to write about this topic. Even so, it remains wildly disappointing that more than a year after Floyd’s death, some journalists remain committed to running the stories they’re told by police without so much as questioning the accuracy or authenticity of claims being made. Just as I wrote around about the “anti-sex beds at the Olympics” ordeal, this is a “brown M&Ms” issue, a sign of a much larger underlying problem.

The Present Age
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This post isn’t "pro-police” or “anti-police” — or, if we’re being totally honest, about police at all. This is about media institutions failing their audiences by allowing themselves to be misled because they didn’t do the work needed to properly report out a story.