Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Brian Williams brouhaha and UFFI have in common: Torquing.

Years after the damage was done, Harris Mitchell told the rest of the UFFI story.

It seems the media are appalled that NBC news anchor Brian Williams embellished a story. Yes the story involved Williams himself and this puts a little extra wobble in the usual spin but pumping up stories is all-too-common in the media. It even has a name: torquing.

As everyone now knows, Brian Williams claimed that while he was covering the war in Iraq the chopper in which he was riding was hit by enemy fire and forced to land. It's a great war story for a journalist, unfortunately his harrowing first-person account isn't true. Williams was in a following aircraft. His aircraft drew no fire. As Mark Twain said: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

A fellow with whom I worked at The London Free Press in London, Ontario, left the paper rather than torque a story. Sent to cover what the editorial department heads believed would be a sensational trial, he returned with a relatively dull tale. The courtroom drama failed to gel. With lots of space set aside for a front page story, a non-story wasn't acceptable. The reporter was ordered to torque his piece, to inflate it and fill the space. He refused. Rather than knuckle under he cleaned out his desk and bid the paper adieu. Another reporter, a more malleable one, was assigned the task of torquing the story.

I can't tell you how many times I watched reporters twist stories. One occasion that still roils me up involved a small child lost over-night in a cornfield. The little girl wandered into the tall, mature corn at sunset. Police were called and the field searched. When the police left sometime after midnight, the child had not yet been found.

At daybreak a helicopter arrived and flew over the corn field still cold and damp with early morning dew. Inside the chopper a passenger aimed an infrared thermographic camera at the field. Soon the high tech tool, normally used to detect heat loss in buildings, had pinpointed the location of the child. Despite mild hypothermia, the sleeping little girl's cool body was still much warmer than the surrounding soil.

Although it made a great story in the morning edition — high tech saves child — the high tech angle wouldn't save the story in the afternoon edition. And so the reader-pleasing slant to the story was born. According to a later edition, the child could have been found earlier if only the insights of an area psychic had been followed. While television and radio were still hawking the high tech angle, the paper ran with paranormal angle.

Of course, the psychic story wasn't true. Both the reporter and I were at the farmhouse all night. There was a reason the reporter hadn't given the psychic much weight in the first story and I hadn't spent time in the darkroom printing pictures. The psychic had been of no help whatsoever.

But, as the day wore on, and interest in the high tech angle wore thin, the psychic saviour looked better and better. The paranormal story got torqued.

Which brings us to one of the best known torqued stories in the history of journalism: the UFFI scare story. Admittedly, more was at work here than simply pumping up the dramatic value of a story. There is an unhealthy amount of Steven Colbert's "Truthiness" at work here, as well.

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation — UFFI — was forced off the market in Canada decades ago. Yet, even today folks selling homes in Ontario are asked if their homes contains UFFI. Banned in Canada in 1980, UFFI is occasionally still used in Europe. And after briefly being banned in the States it is back in limited use there as well.

Fear of Foam: Harris Mitchell
Why is a product deemed unsafe in Canada legal everywhere else? The E.U. is well known for being quick to hit the "ban button." Think of genetically modified foods, pesticides for increased food production, bovine growth hormone, chlorinated chicken, food dye and more. UFFI is not quite ho-hum in Europe but neither is it a scare-you-out-of-your-pants story either.

The reason for the continuing Canadian UFFI scare story is simple. The media loves a good story and one about killer insulation is a beaut. It is not true but it is still a beaut. Sadly, the story has hurt a great many Canadians — both home owners whose homes lost value because of the story and small, private business owners who lost everything when their insulation businesses closed after the foam, installed using expensive specialized equipment, was made illegal.

I'm not surprised the UFFI story is now known by many to be false. I was certain the story was torqued when it originally broke in Canada. CBC Marketplace still brags on its Internet site that it "did several groundbreaking reports on it [UFFI] 20 years ago."

Why was I certain? Because I had insulated a fifty year old home with the foam. After reading everything I could, I settled on UFFI. In use in Europe for years, it was a proven product.

From the brochure for Insulspray by Borden that I was given.
I had the Borden Chemical Company product, Insulspray, injected into the hollow walls of my home. The installer told us that the UFFI would not damage our wall by expanding and forcing the aging plaster off the laths nor would it cause any other pressure related damage. He assured us that the foam would shrink as it dried. This would reduce the insulation value a little but insure a damage-free installation.

After tens of thousands of Canadian homes were insulated with UFFI, many with government assistance, insulation horror stories began circulating. I recall being incredibly angry about the attacks made by Marketplace. For instance, Marketplace made a big deal out of the shrinkage. It was great television but poor science and poor news reporting. They acted as if the shrinkage was unexpected and a problem. Neither was true.

Three metal fasteners in UFFI for years and no corrosion.
Newspaper editors saw the Marketplace story and felt scooped. Newsrooms across Canada scrambled to retell the Marketplace story but with a local angle. The scare spread and politicians caved to media pressure. UFFI was banned. More than a quarter of a million Canadian homes required the removal of the foam from hard to reach exterior wall cavities where it had been injected, often with government assistance.

I recall one story on which I worked. Since being insulated, a local home had had a string of residents taken by ambulance to the hospital and the indoor air had a hazy quality.

When I visited the home I learned that the home was being used as a defacto old age home. All those taken to the hospital were seniors. The health emergencies should have come as no surprise.

And why was there hazy air? Hazy air that the paper made such a big deal about. The answer is simple: The home, draft free since installation of the foam, had all windows sealed with tightly taped plastic. As most of the residents were smokers, the home was filled with a haze of tobacco smoke.  

The energy saving measures had cut air infiltration to almost zero. The smoke was no longer being diluted by outside air. The haze was no mystery.
Most news stories are good stories but not all are true. The Brian Williams Iraq War fable is not out of place in the world of journalism. Torquing a story has a long, well respected history.
For more on the present thinking on UFFI, read: Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI)

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