Note to readers: a letter to the editor from journalist Adam Voiland, a staff Science and Medicine reporter at U.S. News and World Report, who did a major story for that magazine on bed bugs last year, is posted in its entirety below.
Full disclosure: I ask Adam’s indulgence as I made a few very minor alterations. I added hotlinks to our coverage of the Fox News story that Adam referenced, and to my post which responded to Adam’s article. I added paragraph breaks to facilitate ease-of-reading (sorry, Adam, to make you contend with editors even in your off-time!) I also changed one word: reference to LtDan’s “posts” in the third paragraph, second sentence, was changed to “comments,” for greater clarity, since Dan’s status here on the Bedbugger blog is as a commenter. It’s a blog thing: blog authors are said to write “posts,” whereas everyone else leaves “comments.” And I hope you all will: comment, I mean.
Thanks for your letter, Adam!
I checked Bedbugger.com tonight to see if you had picked up the story about Fox News and bedbugs. In doing that I happened to run across your post titled “Bed bugs in almost all 58 states” that was published on June 4, 2007. It’s an interesting post, and I found the stream of comments from Lt. Dan in response particularly fascinating to read. The discussion about immigrants and bedbugs cuts to the heart of one of the dilemmas I faced in covering the bedbug story–which has received a fair amount of criticism on this blog from some of its readers–for U.S. News & World Report. [Editor's note: Adam's original U.S. News and World Report story on bed bugs is here, and our commentary on it is here.]
One of the undercurrents that came up numerous times in the various interviews I conducted for the bedbug story was this issue of immigration. Under their breath or off the record a number of PCOs and scientists mentioned to me that bedbug infestations tended to predominate in areas with high numbers of immigrants. I was told by some PCOs, for example, that different cultural groups had different reactions to bedbugs, different levels of experience with them, and, ultimately, different levels of concern about them. Although most of the comments were not overtly racist, they were the sort that might easily by construed to be had I put them in the public sphere. I chose not to include those quotes. And I chose not to address the immigration issue in my story. I knew that doing so would simply insert a level viscousness into the discourse that was neither warranted nor helpful. That may or may not have been a wise journalistic decision, but it is certainly the sort of choice that journalists make all the time in crafting their stories.
Meanwhile, Lt. Dan had called me numerous times full of theories on all things bedbugs related that seemed out of touch with reality at best and hysterical at worst. Some of his rhetoric then–same as you see in his comments on this blog–suggested he was prepared to start scapegoating and isolating any perceived source of bedbug contamination, be they immigrants or residents of, in his personal war against bedbugs. I found this unsettling as history is full of examples for which having a particular disease or carrying a particular pest has been used as justification for demonizing social groups that, for one reason or another, were undesirable to society at large. This concerned me as my other reporting suggested he may not be the only one drawing this short-sighted conclusion. That concern about scapegoating perceived carriers of bedbugs is part of the reason that I assumed the tone that I did. Remember, that bedbugs do not kill or even seriously injure people physically.
Yes, (as I said before in my article and say again now) bedbugs are a problem. Yes, we ought to make a concerted effort as both individuals and as a society to control the spread of such a pest. And, yes, we should take seriously the stress and mental health problems they can spark for people who get them. However, we must also be wise in the tone and tenor of our response to these bugs. Getting hysterical or hyping this issue in ways that are not thoughtful or constructive has real consequences. I don’t believe that we should tolerate bigotry or irrational scapegoating in this country for any reason–including bedbugs. Was that part of my calculus in the tone I chose for my bedbug story? Definitely. Will taking a measured and thoughtful tone–as I would generally commend the author of this blog for doing–in our response hamper our country’s ability to stop the spread of bedbugs? Perhaps. That, however, is a risk I’m personally willing to take. And I can guarantee you if (or perhaps when?) I get bedbugs myself that’s one opinion of mine that’s not going to change.