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Monday, May 25, 2015

Truthiness reigns in newsrooms


The article claims the reflective markers now found on fire hydrants in London, Ontario, are shaped like the Maltese cross. One look at a picture of a Maltese cross confirms this is wrong. Without a doubt, the blue marker is not shaped like the Maltese cross. So, what cross, if any, inspires so many of the firefighter emblems in North America? The answer may be the cross of St. Florian.

The cross of Saint Florian, used by firefighters, is often confused with the Maltese cross; although it may have eight or more points, it also has large curved arcs between. The cross of St. Florian is widely used by fire services to form their emblem. -- Hudson, New Hampshire, Fire Department and others and others.

When I read the questionable reference to the Maltese cross in the paper, I immediately contacted the paper with a correction which I posted as a comment below the story. All comments must be vetted before being published. I thought the comment would make the newsroom aware of the confusion, the story would be cleaned-up and my comment forgotten.

London Professional Firefighter Association
Why did I believe there was a problem with the reference to the Maltese cross? Because, I used to work at the paper and I used to visit local fire halls occasionally to take pictures for the paper. It was on one of those assignments I learned there was a common myth that the firefighter symbol is the Maltese cross. This is not true, a London firefighter told me. The Maltese cross is sharply pointed.

I learned the gently curved London symbol is based on the cross of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters.

And the London Fire Department is not alone in using the cross of St. Florian. Numerous fire departments across North America use a form of this symbol. Even the International Association of Fire Fighters is on board.

Which cross do you see in the IAFF emblem?
The funny thing is many of the fire fighting organizations don't know their St. Florian cross from their Maltese cross.

I believe the London firefighter with whom I talked so long ago was correct despite the claims of others. That said, the connection between the Maltese cross and firefighters is real and there are badges in use that are decorated with the true, sharply pointed Maltese cross or a clear derivative. Many of these are in use in Canada.

The reflective markers in use in London are not the Maltese cross but the cross of St. Florian. Look below and see for yourself.

And did the newspaper remove the questionable history lesson from the article? No. And they didn't post my comment with the correction either. Somewhere there is a London firefighter shaking his head.


Left to right: Maltese cross, reflective marker in London, cross of St. Florian
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Why is the wrongful identification of a firefighter symbol worth a blog post? Because this is about more than one very small mistake. This post touches on a very big problem affecting newspapers and all other media outlets: truthiness.

Mark-A-Hydrant reflectors in shape of cross of St. Florian.
This is a word coined by comedian and former host of the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert. A news story with the quality of truthiness rings true. But being truthy doen not mean it is necessarily facty.

Something that has truthiness seems to be true, it feels right, it may even have the support of trusted sources, such as the media -- but the statement is not necessarily true. In fact, it might be complete balderdash.

Facts that are actually balderdash crop up all too often in the media. Once an error is reported as truth and then reported again and again in newspaper articles, television newscasts and radio reports, the error takes on a thick patina of truthiness. For an example, think of the UFFI scare. Today it is known to have been balderdash. Yet, the myth is stronger than the truth and even newspapers that have carried the opposing view at one time or other, still fall back on the myth. Colbert was quite right: truthy wins over facty.

I contacted the paper on the weekend about the neither-here-nor-there error of misidentifying the cross of Saint Florian. The common error is still in the story and it is in my Monday morning paper. Sad, but no big deal.

Newspaper columnist admits fear and anxiety overblown.
But the UFFI error is a big deal. At the time the original UFFI story broke, I had proof the story was wrong. On one assignment a scientist from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment told the reporter I was with that my take on UFFI was correct. The scientist backed me up.

Did folk at the paper look at my documents? No. Did the professional journalists examine any of the evidence I had gathered? No. The adherence of the media to truthiness and not fact financially damaged thousands of innocent people across North America.

Some months back the local paper ran an article on rebranding. The article illustrated the strength of rebranding with a story on rebranding in action. The illustrative story was nothing more than truthiness.

When I confronted a reporter from the paper about this, the reporter told me that the illustrative story didn't have to be true; it only had to illustrate something that we all know to be true. Stephen Colbert would be proud.

Truthiness causes big problems and that's the truth.
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Addendum:

If you are thinking of sending a comment and getting into an argument over the correct name for the cross that inspired so many of the firefighter symbols in North America, please click the link and read the post titled Saint Florian: Saint of Fire and Flood.

The author of the above post writes that he could find "no clues to the cross’s origin." But he clearly finds the transformation of the Maltese cross into the St. Florian difficult to believe. The author writes, "A comparison of the two symbols – one featuring relatively thin, angular arms, the other comprised of broad, curved arms – suggests, however, that such a radical metamorphosis is unlikely to have occurred." And note the author believes some of the arguing when all is said and done "ignores the fact the Florian cross is simply not a Maltese cross."

With the matter so confused, a newspaper reporter would be wise to give the entire question wide berth. I was saved more than once from making a mistake along these lines by an alert copy editor. Unfortunately, copy editors are just about extinct at newspapers today.

Whether it is claims about UFFI or claims about the symbolism of a cross, it seems a claim does not always need to be indisputably true. Far too many journalists believe a good story should never go unreported but it can go unquestioned.

I will leave the last word to the American Township Fire Department:

  • Look at the shape of the ATFD patch. Many call it the Maltese cross when in actuality it is known as the cross of Saint Florian, the Patron Saint of Fire Fighters.

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