Numbers Do Matter

May 3, 2010

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.

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One Response to “Numbers Do Matter”

  1. Sharon STevenson Says:

    Good points, Peter. There’s also another factor here. Where are the “adults?” Where are the editors? Where’s the groundings, the rules and regs, the feedback at least, saying hey, guys, we’re going too far. While man-on-the-streets are what they are and if live, certainly slightly uncontrollable, but where’s the obligation to point out sheer fantasy or supposition at the moment as a part of the ethos of any specific newsroom.
    Bosses still have obligations…or has truth and perspective so shrunken in its importance these days?


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