Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinly staffed newsrooms fail to catch errors

Since I started blogging, I've had some disputes with reporters over their "facts". Unlike some in the past, which got downright nasty, the most recent dispute has remained civil but it follows the usual pattern.

All too often, newspapers use other newspapers for the source of their facts. This is not a good research method. It is important to go to the original source and even then one must stay vigilant for errors. This is where a good editor is important. Sadly, good editors are a dying breed at most newspapers.

Let's look at few of these media myths or "truthiness" facts as Stephen Colbert would say.

  • Cats are the only animals besides humans that can be born congenitally deaf. - wrong
  • The carp barrier in the canal near Chicago uses $20,000 worth of electricity per day. - nope
  • In hot weather, avoid caffeinated drinks as they make you more thirsty. - not true

The $20,000 per day cost for the carp barrier would have raised questions with any good editor. That's a whomping big chunk of electricity. Can that really be true? In today's newsroom, the figure just slips through the system — or lack of system — with no questions asked.

If you'd like to know the full story about the fish barrier claim, read on. If you are a journalism student, you might find it informative. If not, move on, there is nothing more to see here.

Last night I read "an electric fish barrier, built for $9 million at Chicago, consumes $20,000 worth of electricity every day." I've been following the story about the electrified barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that was built to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and I've come across this figure before. And it may be wrong.

I believe a good editor would have done some quick math and said, "Whoa!" The reporter would have been asked for the source of this figure. When I questioned the reporter, I got an e-mail telling me:

"The figures of $20,000 a day and $7.3 for electricity for the year came from a big spread in the Sunday Detroit Free Press of July 17."

Forgive the large, bold font but it is the one used by the reporter. Hmmm. Shouting? Maybe this has turned a wee bit nasty.

When I checked the Detroit Free Press, I discovered the paper had actually reported: "Below the water, an electrical field lurks, thrumming 24 hours a day at a daily cost of $20,000." I was surprised; This does not claim the charge for electricity is $20,000 a day.

I have written a number of online stories about the carp problem. It was easy to discover the following:  The Army Corps of Engineers requested $7.25 million for barrier operations in the President’s FY2011 Budget. (Let's see, $7.25 million divided by 365 is $19,863.)

It appears the Detroit paper was talking about the total cost of operating the electric fish barrier. I contacted the Army Corps of Engineers. Lynne Whelan LRC confirmed the oft quoted figure of $20,000 includes all costs associated with operating and maintaining the barrier system. It does not represent the cost of electricity alone.

Today, thanks to the immediate sharing of stories between newspapers in large chains, an error made in London, Ontario may appear in papers and media outlets right across the country. For instance, 24 Hours Vancouver carried the story.

How wild was the $20,000 per day claim? Well, in June of this year (2011) the cost of a kwh of electricity in the Chicago area cost about 15.3 cents. If you are wondering how much electricity a kwh represents, the average home in Ontario uses between 800 and 1000 kwh in total each month.

Remember: This is a barrier that does not kill the fish but simply repels them by making them feel uncomfortable when they attempt to swim through the electrified water. So, how much does it cost to make a fish feel uncomfortable. We still don't know, but it's not $20,000 a day.

The cost of electricity in the Chicago area charted for the past 5 years.

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