Inside the News: A Newspaper vs. Local TV Reporting About Fentanyl Exposure in Colorado Springs

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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The newspaper in Colorado’s second-largest city challenged local TV coverage about fentanyl exposure and reflected a national effort among some in medicine and media to counter a persistent narrative.

At issue is news coverage about the latest drug surge and the way three local TV stations in Colorado Springs initially reported uncritically on part of it, citing law enforcement and first responders as the only sources.

This was a July 29 headline at FOX21: “Fountain Police officer recovering after being exposed to fentanyl.” Here’s the entire single-source news flash:

A Fountain Police officer is recovering after possibly being exposed to fentanyl during an investigation Thursday night.

The Fountain Police Department said the officer became lightheaded while searching a suspect’s vehicle. After experiencing symptoms of exposure, the officer was taken to a hospital. Police said a substance in the vehicle later tested positive for fentanyl.

Fountain police confirmed the officer has been released from the hospital and is recovering at home.

No doubt those three paragraphs are accurate. Fountain police probably did say all of those things. Rival station KRDO in the Springs ran a similar story about the Fountain officer.

What was missing is some important context.

For the past few years medical experts have been trying to debunk a widespread belief that police are falling ill from exposure to fentanyl. As The Washington Post reported last month, “the myth of overdose by incidental contact persists in the face of overwhelming evidence, and objections by health experts have had little effect on the stories law enforcement officials tell.” And, apparently, also how those stories get retailed uncritically through some local media.

In the Springs, a third TV station, KOAA, had its own story about the incident in Fountain. From that report:

Commander Mark Cristiani with the Fountain Police Department said the fentanyl was in pill form, but the residue of the drug was most likely on the outside of the bag it was in. “There was determined to be fentanyl on both the officer’s gloves, some on his outer uniform. So of course, we destroy those things and get the officers new equipment. But mostly it was pills, I believe,” he said. He said it’s not confirmed if the officer inhaled the drug or it was absorbed through his skin. What they do know is it is becoming a bigger problem every day.

As Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff noted on social media, the story “relies entirely on police accounts and doesn’t consult experts who say this kind of thing is not chemically possible.” (The KOAA story had two sources: the police commander and a local fire official.)

Last month, The New York Times magazine published an article about viral videos of police and fentanyl, a local TV outlet in Kansas City, Mo., and what the author called “a bizarre news cycle” playing on repeat. From the piece headlined “What’s Really Going on in Those Police Fentanyl Exposure Videos?”:

It’s nearly impossible for the symptoms depicted to have been caused by “fentanyl exposure.” The scientific literature shows, definitively, that brief contact with fentanyl is not sufficient for it to enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier to cause such a rapid overdose. All the way back in 2017, America’s leading toxicological societies noticed the spread of these viral exposure stories and tried to put them to rest; there have since been countless fact-checks and scientific debunkings by major news outlets, including one from The Times’s editorial board. Last month, a 33-year-old clinical toxicologist and emergency-medicine pharmacist named Ryan Feldman co-published a case study about the time he accidentally spilled a mammoth dose of pure liquid fentanyl all over himself at work; he simply washed it off, with no adverse effects.

So, what is going on with these police exposure stories? As a news consumer, I’m certainly curious, which is why context is important in these local stories (big or small, breaking or otherwise) and why more thorough local reporting could help form a better understanding.

From The Washington Post:

Among physicians and toxicologists, various alternative explanations have been floated for the reactions by police and others. Some suspect a mass psychogenic disorder (when groups of people feel sick for reasons that cannot be explained by identifiable physical or environmental triggers). Others say the symptoms could be due to the “nocebo effect” — the opposite of the placebo effect, it happens when the belief that a substance will do harm actually causes a negative reaction. Skeptics have suggested that employees on the public payroll could be faking work-related injuries to get disability payments.

This comes from Stat News in 2017:

Establishing the truth in these cases is not just a matter of setting the record straight, but of preventing hysteria and ensuring public safety. While accidental exposure to opioids can take lives, so can undue fear of the risks. For first responders, taking extra precautions could delay lifesaving care for people suffering overdoses and distract from more pressing threats, such as a suspect at a crime scene.

In Colorado, FOX21’s brief single-sourced item didn’t just come and go without serious attention. The Republican candidate for attorney general in Colorado, John Kellner, who is a current district attorney, shared the single-sourced story on his social media account and relied on it as “Another example of the danger posed by fentanyl and the risks faced by officers and first responders every day.”

This is from the U.K. Independent:

…local and national news outlets and social media posts are amplifying officers’ warnings of the dangers of the synthetic opioid as a growing threat to their own jobs – what analysts fear is being used to help fund their latest front in the war on drugs, keep people in jail, and criminalise life-saving treatment.

The spread of viral fentanyl misinformation reflects a complex phenomenon – from news outlets’ deferential relationships with law enforcement agencies, to the ways in which police fuel public perceptions of the risks associated with the job, used to bolster demands for larger budgets and increase criminal penalties.

These reports also lack critical information or public health guidance about how to combat a crisis that has impacted thousands of people and their friends and families, with stories of people who use drugs – people who have relied on life-saving treatment after an actual overdose – often missing from that coverage.

In a crowded TV market where four stations compete, I’d think one of them might try to stand out with coverage on this instead of going all-in with the same officials-say approach. Why that didn’t happen might have something to do with how police statements can make for an easy way to “feed the beast” at for-profit local news organizations that always seem hungry for for fresh content fast, fast, fast, now, now, now. Journalists might feel comfortable running information uncritically from these statements because they come from “official” sources like law enforcement or fire officials. That can be risky and have serious consequences.

The local TV market’s pack journalism on this particular hospitalized-officer story (as brief as it was) left the door open — and created a need for — the local newspaper to play cleanup.

Seth Klamann, a Gazette reporter based in Denver who often reports on substance use, says he has a feeling that treating fentanyl like a weapon of mass destruction (or anthrax) is significant across the country and has been for a while. “We’re still dealing with the fallouts of how heroin and crack were discussed publicly decades ago,” he says.

After seeing local TV news coverage of a police-fentanyl-exposure incident in Kansas City, and criticism of that coverage, he wasn’t sure if he’d have to write a debunking-type piece in Colorado. But then he saw how Springs TV world treated the Fountain incident. In his piece about it for The Gazette, he offered context about what he called “a story that keeps getting told.” In doing so, the newspaper reporter went further than just citing the police. He consulted experts like Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and addiction specialist at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine.

Here’s a relevant part of The Gazette story that came under the headline “Can you overdose after touching or being near fentanyl? Experts give an emphatic ‘no’”:

The story has spread so frequently across the United States in recent years that the American College of Medical Toxicology has a special place on its website about fentanyl exposure reports. It even issued a statement — back in 2017 — reminding the public that “toxicity cannot occur from simply being in proximity of the drug” and that anyone who gets powdered fentanyl on their skin can address it by “simply washing it off.”

Marino said he suspects the story keeps getting run, in part, because of the amount of misinformation about fentanyl in the United States and in the media. He also said it can also be used for political or policy gains.

Klamann says he feels it’s important to cover fentanyl accurately and contextually — big stories as well as small ones — and that journalists should be attentive to that. “It’s too easy to let the narrative slip one way or another,” he says, “and that will only do harm to the people we should be trying to save and cloud the issues we should be trying to address.” (I pinged news managers at KOAA and KRDO yesterday to see if they wanted to weigh in. I haven’t heard back but will update this if I do.)

It’s possible more context might still come to the specific story in Fountain.

FOX21 News Director Joe Cole says since the item ran the station has spoken with a local doctor who questioned the incident. Cole said journalists have been following up with the police department about how officials there define exposure, what test results on the officer, if any, might have revealed at the hospital, and details about the immediate response to the incident on the scene.

“We’re actually digging quite a bit deeper on this,” Cole said Friday. “We intend to do something next week at a much deeper level.”

Kyle Clark is officially NewsBreak clickbait

KUSA 9News Anchor Kyle Clark has reached a milestone in his TV broadcast career. He is officially clickbait.

In order to draw traffic and eyeballs to a NewsBreak Denver story this week, the outlet ran this headline: “9News Anchor Kyle Clark asks DougCo superintendent tough questions.”

Responding to the attention, Clark said his questions “weren’t softballs but they were pretty straightforward.” He added that he felt they were the “kind of thing I assume any journalist would ask the superintendent. This wasn’t Isaac Chotiner stuff.” (Chotiner is a New Yorker staff writer known for his Q-and-As.)

The development illustrates how NewsBreak, an outlet that calls itself “the nation’s leading local news app” and is using Denver as a test case for local journalism, seems to believe Clark’s name in the headline would garner more traffic than that of his interview subject, Erin Kane. Or, for that matter, anything that Kane even said in the interview.

And that means Clark has officially become clickbait. For his part, the anchor of the innovative nightly newscast “Next,” said he would eventually rely on that assessment “in an annual review as I attempt to keep my job.” (I took it as a joke.)

KUSA 9News, owned by the large TV broadcast company Tegna, is, however, in the process of being purchased by a pair of hedge-fundy firms.

It’s Green Bay Packers-style newspaper ownership fever in Colorado, apparently

You’ve read previously here about efforts afoot to see if a Green Bay Packers fan-owned football team model might work for the Sentinel Colorado newspaper in Aurora.

Now someone is floating a similar idea in … Aspen.

“Behind the scenes, a small group of valley citizens is working hard to restore The Aspen Times to its former status as a real newspaper free to report the truth as its remaining journalists see it,” read a column in the rival Aspen Daily News by Mick Ireland this week.

Ireland, who worked at the Times 40 years ago, recapped some of the recent drama at his former paper. And then he wrote this:

So, what to do? I suggest forming a community-owned, nonprofit newspaper — not government owned but owned by community members, the way the Green Bay Packers are owned by thousands in Green Bay. Such a paper would be truly independent since we, as shareholders, would have limited liability, and a devastating and costly lawsuit could be answered with bankruptcy filings, dissolution and a new startup. In the meantime, an independent board could liberate local journalists who would not have to hesitate every time the news offended someone with power and money.

Elsewhere in the pages of the Aspen Daily News, Steve Skinner, who sold advertising for both of the town’s rival newspapers, wrote a column that suggested otherwise.

“Aspen has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to print media. It still is, regardless of the horrid downsizing of the good stuff at The Aspen Times. Go outside the newspaper box and you have entities like Aspen Journalism and Aspen Public Radio reporting on little old Aspen,” he wrote.

But, he went on, “There’s no need to start another climate-intensive, tree-destroying daily newspaper. We have the internet now. As newspapers have shrunken, Aspen has been a safe harbor, buoyed by the cream spilling off the cup of plenty — mostly in the form of real estate advertising. If as a result of an ad, one house sells in this multi-billion dollar market, the advertising buy was more than worth it.”

The Aspen Times recently lost its status as Pitkin County’s “newspaper of record” to the Aspen Daily News, which I imagine led to this flurry of meta-local-media columns this week. “It could be the first and last time that legal advertising hits the pages as a news item of its own,” wrote Aspen Daily News co-founder Dave Danforth in his own column.

Denver news anchor: Do something about guns and climate change

Denver residents “will miss Jim Benemann, who has been a fixture in so many living rooms delivering the news from the anchor desk of CBS4 for the past 20 years.”

So began a tribute to him this week by Dennis Huspeni in The Denver Gazette. The nightly news anchor, 65, had announced he was retiring. But while he originally planned to step away at the end of the year, he “agreed to stay through March 2023 to allow enough time for station officials to find his replacement,” Huspeni reported.

In his interview, the news anchor sounded like he had something to get off his chest:

From the story:

“We’ve been through so many other mass shootings and it continues to this very day,” he said. “I shake my head and say, as a society, what’s it going to take before we finally get serious about protecting ourselves? I’m not going to make it political, but what the hell people? What more do you need to see? Do you need to see the bodies of slain kids before you take on the gun lobby and really pass some meaningful reforms? It’s been tough as a reporter with kids and grandkids, and now I’m starting to feel the same way about climate change. I mean, it’s here.”

Elsewhere in the piece, he had this to say: “We are unbiased, but I will say some things about gun violence or climate change not as a journalist, but just somebody who lives in our community and as a dad.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

👀 How about this headline: “From the editor: The Golden Transcript contributed to systemic racism. Let’s talk about it.”

📢 The Colorado Press Association has released details about its 144th annual convention. This year’s slogan is “Stronger Together.” The conference is Sept. 15-17 in Denver.

☀️ “The next few months will see plenty of misleading statements issued by campaigns on all sides,” wrote columnist Mario Nicolais in The Colorado Sun this week. “The best way to make sense of it? Keep following your local reporters.”

➡️ PEN America Denver “is proud to sponsor the [margins.] Literary Conference.” (Ana Campbell won’t be there, though, since she’s leaving for Texas.”)

📖 Laurence Washington, “a prolific, Colorado writer and journalist, experience-driven college professor, knowledgeable mentor, movie connoisseur and true friend, departed this world in February 2021,” reads a book blurb on Amazon by Khaleel The Writer, who says, “I penned Laurence: Tales of Me & My Mentor to chronicle some of the memories we’ve shared, and the wisdom he provided me in his last five years.”

🎙 “Thanks to the shoutout from the New York Times, more people downloaded ‘Back from Broken’ Saturday than any other single day this year,” said Colorado Public Radio’s Vic Vela.

🏆 A controversial Avalanche tweet raises questions about the intersection of fandom and sports journalism, reported Alex Amado for Cronkite News.

🔩 Alex Burness, who is leaving The Denver Post’s politics team and moving to D.C., will join Bolts, a digital magazine that “covers the nuts and bolts of power and political change, from the local up.” Burness he says he’ll cover “criminal justice and voting rights, with a particular eye on local and state politics.”

➡️ The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reportingis partnering with The Diversity Pledge Institute “in an effort to better serve our members and create a sustainable model of recruitment and retention of diverse talent in investigative reporting.” Take this survey and help them out.

🎊 This month marks 25 years for Bret Saunders at 97.3 KBCO.

💸 Gannett, which owns USA Today and local news operations in roughly half the country including the Fort Collins Coloradoan and the Pueblo Chieftainreported this week it would undertake a “significant cost reduction program” amid a “challenging economic backdrop marred by soaring inflation rates, labor shortages and price-sensitive consumers.” A Thursday message to employees from Gannett’s president of news warned of “painful reductions to staffing.”

📻 Jeff Haber has joined Cumulus Top 40 KKMG, 98.9 Magic FM in Colorado Springs, “as the station’s new Program Director and afternoon drive personality.” Now, Harber says, “I’ll have been live on-air in every time zone in the Continental U.S.”

🏃‍♀️ Republicans Heidi Ganahl and Danny Moore “can’t run from the media to dodge election denier questions, and run for governor, too,” wrote Sentinel Colorado Editor Dave Perry. Elsewhere in the column, he wrote: “The questions of Ganahl and Moore being election deniers, or slyly winking at them, is not a ‘gratuitous’ query that all but complicit Colorado media are obsessed with.”

👊 Mark Neitro, a photojournalist for CBS4 in Denver, is “recovering at home after having a part of one kidney removed because of cancer.” He said it was “truly a blessing that they found it early.”

⚖️ The Denver Post’s Jessica Seaman profiled Matt Roane, a Colorado attorney who “has filed dozens of lawsuits to ensure school boards follow the law when they discuss matters in secret.”

⬆️ Spencer Soicher is the new weekend evening anchor of KRDO in the Springs.

😬 KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark found it “wild” that The Gazette’s editorial page “allowed a political candidate to write a column falsely denying the newspaper’s own reporting of the candidate’s verified statements.”

🙏 Thanks to the American Press Institute for highlighting this newsletter in its ‘Need to Know’ email — again! — this week.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this column, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.