Wednesday, November 22, 2006

To assume...

In the course of two weeks, The Saratogian has reported a total of two deaths in two articles –one by Managing Editor Barbabara Lombardo –and assumed that there were criminal acts involved in each instance. And for the second time in two weeks, the newspaper is eating crow for using what could be termed as sensationalism at best; at worst flat out misreporting the news.

Not even a week removed from the incident at Saratoga West trailer park, the paper printed an equally dubious front page article about a pair of bodies being found on West Avenue. Read now by nearly 3,000 people online and the usual 10,000 in the normal daily circulation, the article caused quite the stir among the city’s populace over the weekend as well is should.

Lombardo’s lead assumes the worst, stating the cops had launched a “criminal investigation” into the deaths. Even though the article is markedly toned down by the end –the county district attorney assures the public is not at risk –the assertion there is something criminal at hand is a leap few law enforcement officers would take given the circumstances at the house, all which suggested the deceased had spent a good deal of time chugging antifreeze.

Back to newspaper etiquette regarding suicide; while one self-inflicted death isn’t likely to draw media attention, the stakes are much higher with two. A pair of suicides could mean a murder-suicide is at play, which is just sadistic enough to get the presses rolling. Double suicide, well, that’s still on the line. But in this case, a distraught couple’s choice of antifreeze made it bizarre and sadistic enough to attract attention.

Now for a brief chemistry lesson brought to you by Valvoline, the makers of Zerex Extended Life Antifreeze; protect your engine against liner pitting and corrosion.

Contrary to what some might thin, antifreeze isn’t an unpleasant substance to drink. In fact, the chemical compound Ethylene Glycol is sweet and even palatable enough that small children, pets and even wild animals are drawn to consume it. The immediate effect is something similar to being drunk –some moonshiners even use this substance to kick it up a notch so to speak.

However, this is where any pleasant properties of antifreeze consumption end. The substance is eventually metabolized into oxalic acid, a chemical commonly found in household cleaners. When in the blood stream, the acid bonds to calcium and eventually forms kidney stones. And as anyone who has suffered them could attest, kidney stones aren’t exactly a pleasurable experience. Drinking gallons of antifreeze puts this naturally-occurring process into overdrive, ultimately causing intense pain, vomiting and assorted other nasty complications associated with acute kidney failure. As little as two tablespoons of the substance is known to be lethal.

On an ironic side note, the one way to counter-effect antifreeze consumption is to drink large quantities of vodka. Of course, it should be noted that such a technique could ultimately lead to cirrhosis, so you’re probably better off just avoiding antifreeze consumption.

Chemistry aside, The Saratogian has exerted a certain degree of bloodlust as of late that’s a bit above and beyond the normal boundaries of coverage. Even after two wild goose chases in two weeks, the paper is again sniffing around a suspicious death before anything concrete is known. This time, it’s the death of a grandmother more than 100 miles away; her 34-year-old grandson is listed as a “person of interest” who may or may not come visit his father’s residence near the border of Fulton County.

True, among news aficionados, getting the scoop on the competition is an adrenaline rush that would send any press junky reeling. Moreover, getting badly scooped by the competition is a beating no reporter ever wants to experience twice.

But these are internal and intangible industry pressures that most people among the news reading public don’t understand and could care less about. Seldom is there a reader who will pick up a paper one morning and determine to change his or her reading habits based on a single scoop.

What does change reader habits is a long track record of slanting or misreporting the news to make it more sensational. Even if this is unconscious sensationalism on the part of the Saratogian writers, it certainly should be caught on the copy desk; if not there then by Lombardo herself. But given the nearly record number of readers who read her tripe about the double West Avenue suicides, it’s more likely the managing editor will continue to borrow pages from the Ruppert Murdoch playbook of modern journalism.


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