Washington Post staff writer David Segal says stories about bedbugs generally follow a hyperbolic pattern: They’re back. They’re everywhere. They suck your blood and ruin your life. Segal talks about the hysterical coverage and explains why a bedbug story is every editor’s dream.
Every now and then we report on under-covered stories, Darfur, stealthy end runs around the Bill of Rights, that sort of thing. We also report on undercover stories like the video of abused cattle caught by Humane Society moles inside a California slaughterhouse. But then there’s a third category, under-the-covers stories. MALE CORRESPONDENT: While you’re asleep, they get to work. They bite, then suck your blood. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The nasty bloodsuckers have invaded so many homes all across the city. Eyewitness News reporter Carolina Leed shows us the Bed Bug Battle Plan. MALE CORRESPONDENT: They’re every place you could think of – doctors’ offices, schools, judges’ chambers, retail stores, message therapists – [OVERLAP] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Tri-States bedbug epidemic is now attacking four-star hotels.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One woman has a warning tonight for travelers. She says you’re not safe anywhere. BOB GARFIELD: Under the covers, for sure, but also perhaps over-covered. Yes, bedbugs are a problem. It’s true that they’d virtually disappeared until a few years ago and no one denies that having them in your home is physically and psychologically disturbing.
But Washington Post staff writer David Segal believes the problem doesn’t quite match the hyperbolic coverage, and he joins us now to talk about bedbug panic. David, welcome to the show. DAVID SEGAL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so what is the appeal of bedbugs to story editors? DAVID SEGAL: There’s no editor in the country that will turn down a bedbugs are back story [BOB LAUGHS]. And the reason is that, first of all, it’s a real trend. It actually is happening. That always helps. Secondly, as a villain, the bedbug is irresistible. It has this great Dickensian name-brand recognition. It’s like finding out that someone has scurvy. It seems like a problem from another age. [BOB LAUGHS]
And it also has that visceral quality that local TV loves – there’s a problem and it’s in your home and it could be hurting you right now, in that tradition of, you know, your air conditioner could be killing your pets. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now, fair enough, but it’s one thing for a story to be overblown and sort of another for a lot of different news organizations to notice it, creating, you know, a sort of sense of overkill, when in fact it’s just, you know, one story from a lot of different sources.
DAVID SEGAL: That’s true. I mean, the problem with this story has always been that the stats on it are incredibly squishy. There’s just never been a good academic study that has explained exactly how bad the bedbugs really are, so every journalist and almost every story that you see relies on one stat over and over again, and that is the number of calls to exterminators. And there are a couple of problems with this.
The first one is that it’s always tricky to get a sense of the scale of any problem from a party that has a financial interest, if that problem gets worse. It creates, at minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The other problem is that there are so many people who think that they have an infestation of bugs and are being eaten by bugs that psychologists have a name for it. They call it delusional parasitosis.
In New York City, there were two and a half thousand complaints to the Housing Authority in the last few years about bedbugs, and they check out every one of them, and 500 turn out to be real.
So you have, it seems, two or three people who think they have a bedbug infestation and don’t, for every one that does. BOB GARFIELD: So what you’re describing is literally a form of hysteria. But, is the coverage itself hysterical? I mean, give me some examples of what you think has been, you know, genuinely hyperbolic. DAVID SEGAL: New York City has really delivered on the bedbug hyperbole. This is really the bedbug capital of the world. The Daily News, for instance: “They’re Tiny, Evil, and Everywhere in the City. Why Bedbugs Are on a Tear from Park Avenue to the Projects.”
USA Today: “They’re Back for a Snack. It’s Easy to Say Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite Until the Paranoia-Inducing Blood-Sucking Parasites Shake You Awake.”
And finally The New York Times, which generally doesn’t traffic in hyperbole: “Bedbugs Are Back and Spreading Through New York City Like a Swarm of Locusts on a Lush Field of Wheat.” BOB GARFIELD: In our news meeting, we compared the bedbug stories to shark attack stories that periodically spring up, but you actually make a different analogy to stories about the recession. How does that go? DAVID SEGAL: I think they’re both examples of how writing about a story and having readers read about a story, consume a story in vast quantities, exacerbates the thing that’s being written about.
When economists try to figure out whether or not we really are in a recession, one of the things they want to know is how people feel about it and whether people think that we’re headed towards a recession. Because if they think that we are headed toward a recession, they’ll stop spending money. So there’s this incredible amount of coverage. How could you not now think that we’re headed toward a recession?
In the same way, reading about bedbugs has had the effect of making more people think that they have bedbugs. I mean, everyone who reads about bedbugs double-checks their beds to figure out whether or not they have the problem, and a certain percent of those people think they do, and call exterminators, and that just generates more stories, and more phone calls to more exterminators. BOB GARFIELD: Have you gotten any kind of backlash over this piece at all? Have people who’ve actually been bitten by real live bedbugs called you and told you how dare you, or anything like that? DAVID SEGAL: A lot. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] DAVID SEGAL: I’ve had a ton of email from people who hope that I get bedbugs, who have had bedbugs, who say you have no idea what you’re talking about, it’s a total horror, and the more coverage about this the better.
And I’m just waiting for the highly ironic infestation to begin in my own home. BOB GARFIELD: Well, I certainly hope you are spared the pestilence. David, thank you for joining us. DAVID SEGAL: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: David Segal writes for The Washington Post Style section. He’s based in New York.