You probably saw the story of Charles Smith last week. Smith, a retired Marine, was arrested in South Hackensack, N.J., with a crack pipe, hypodermic needle, empty bags of crack and heroin, and a Santa suit in his car. His story was originally published by the Hackensack Daily Voice website. It called him “Bad Santa.” Then the story was picked up by the Associated Press.
From there, dozens of news outlets ran their own variations. Headlines like “Santa busted with a crack pipe” plastered social media feeds. Some Philly news organizations, like NBC10, even paid to promote the story on Facebook.
How thoughtless. How unethical. How cheap.
As I’m writing this, that one post had about 700 reactions, 500 shares and 200 comments. Most comments were jokes — “Gonna check local pawn shops for reindeer and a sleigh!” one person wrote; “Santa wants an intervention for Christmas,” wrote another. People laughed about Santa going to Kensington. A nurse joked about him getting Narcanned.
And that was just one local news outlet in one city. Imagine the national reach.
There’s nothing funny about an off-duty volunteer getting arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. And there’s certainly nothing newsworthy about it, either.
Was he arrested on the job? No. Did he do something illegal while volunteering? Nope. Is he a public figure? Not really. Sounds like basic police blotter to me.
When readers laugh at Charles Smith, they’re laughing at the more than 1,200 people our city will lose to overdose this year. When news organizations exploit his story for clicks, they’re part of the problem.
The Society of Professional Journalists has a four-pronged Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it, act independently, be accountable and transparent, and minimize harm. Unfortunately, in this case, news organizations chose not to minimize harm, but maximize it.
“Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect,” the code says. The news media should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm,” and “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast,” it continues.
According to the code, journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.” They should also “weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information,” it adds.
This “Bad Santa” narrative — “He’s likely going on the naughty list,” wrote USA Today — not only harms Smith’s reputation, but also the public’s perception of individuals struggling with drugs like crack and heroin. Only 11 percent of people who fit the criteria for substance use disorder receive treatment. One of the biggest barriers? Stigma. It negatively impacts drug policy and prevents individuals from reaching for help.
When editors are selecting stories, they shouldn’t force a small drug charge to go viral. And if you’re a news consumer tempted to share the story for a few laughs, pass. With drug deaths in this country rising faster than ever, and nearly half of the U.S. prison population incarcerated for drug charges, there are too many lives at stake.
Jillian Bauer-Reese is an assistant professor of journalism in the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, where she teaches a course called Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction. She is also a person in long-term recovery.