How Good Buildings Get Bad Reputations
May 1, 2017
Occasionally—actually, far more often than I'd like—I stumble across a clear example of how uninspired reporting and clickbait journalism culture can lead to support for uncritical thinking and the advancement of fringe beliefs.
This time, the example comes from my own home state. Recently, Detroit TV news outlet WDIV posted the following article to their Facebook page: "Old Ghostly Orphanage Being Turned Into Apartments." They tagged it with the question, "So, anybody want to live in an old haunted orphanage?"
The building in question is the Holy Family Orphanage in Marquette, MI. Built a century ago, the orphanage has a mixed history. It was clearly a place the locals viewed as a benefit to the community; however, the building has roots as one of the many orphanages used to house displaced Native American children. The orphanage is said to have been the location for stories of the type typical to old Catholic orphanages: cruel nuns, Medieval punishments, and even child deaths due to neglect or malice. These latter rumors are the seeds for the ghost stories that some people tell about the building.
Half of the WDIV article is an unsourced overview of haunting stories posted to a ghost-hunting website in 2003 (and the page is so outdated that it still has dead links to Geocities pages on it). The page repeats claims that "neighboring houses around the orphanage report seeing figures of children in the building, hear laughing or screaming" and that "one story is that a little girl caught pneumonia and died from playing outside in a blizzard/snow, and her body was put on display as a lesson to the other children of why not to play outside."
WDIV doesn't follow these claims with any sort of skepticism or balanced counter-statement from some local skeptic. They didn't even reach out to the company, Home Renewal Systems, to get a comment. The report ends on the haunting claims. It's literally just a minor story about a building renovation wrapped in enough clickbait to make it appealing to Facebook readers.
Conversely, the way this renovation has been covered in the local Marquette, MI Mining Journal newspaper has been very different. The paper has tracked the project for the last two years, collecting details about the zoning, the approval, the need for asbestos removal, etc. There's not a hint in all the Mining Journal's reporting about concerns over ghosts. Instead, the Holy Family Orphanage appears to be a beloved local structure that fell by the wayside, one that many in the community are glad to see being renovated:
[Marquette resident Phil] Niemisto said he's happy to see the building being restored. "I think it's a good idea," he said. "I'd rather see that than it tumble down to the ground. Preserving Marquette's history is important."I'm honestly not sure where WDIV even picked up the "haunted" angle, since it's nowhere in the Mining Journal's coverage (their only cited source other than the paranormal page), nor in the few other local station reports that preceded it. Presumably, some intern on a slow news Monday went looking through local stories, stumbled on the orphanage renovation, did a (very) little research, and hit on an angle that would increase pageviews better than the boring old "Building Renovation to Help Local Community" angle the Mining Journal was pushing.
I grant that this is a relatively small transgression compared to some reporting. But it's this sort of seemingly innocuous rumor-mongering, combined with the modern quick-churn news cycle need for "clicks," that perpetuates the lack of critical thinking that pervades society. Ultimately, I hope the project is a resounding success for Home Renovation Systems and a positive change for Marquette. And I'm confident that, of all the problems that might plague the Holy Family Orphanage's grand re-opening, things that go bump in the night will not be among them.
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit