Friday, June 20, 2008

Sloppy Journalism

Years ago, in my hometown, I read a news story in the local paper. It said that a decapitated corpse had been found on the roadside just north of town. It then went on to say that there were "no signs of trauma" to the body.

No signs of trauma? How about decapitation? If that isn't a sign of trauma, I'm not quite sure what is!

I was reminded of that just now when I opened today's edition of RedEye, published by the Chicago Tribune. An article on page 8 of today's paper, entitled "Metra mashup", was about how the Metra trains had become so busy that they lacked adequate seating, leading people to sit in the staircase on the stairs between the lower and upper levels. The article was accompanied by a photo of a man doing just that. There was just one teensy little problem with the photo: To the left side of the picture, clearly visible in the background, one could see an empty seat. So the man was clearly sitting in the stairwell for illustrative purposes only, not for reasons having anything to do with necessity. Instead of reinforcing the news story, the photograph undercut the point the story was trying to make.

Frankly, I didn't buy the claim being made in the story to begin with. I don't commute on the Metra on a daily basis, but I've used it several times during the past year to visit suburban friends, and I can't recall that it was ever so crowded that people had to sit in the stairwells because all of the seats were full. It's possible that overcrowding is a problem on inbound trains during rush hour in the mornings, but I'm dubious about that as well. I did in fact commute into the city on a Metra train in the early 90's, and even though the trains were usually quite full, I don't recall ever seeing anyone sitting in the stairwells.

If they're so keen on writing stories about overcrowded trains, they should focus on the El trains run by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) in the city of Chicago itself. There are no stairwells to sit in on those trains, but it's not uncommon to see at least half of the riders standing up and holding precariously onto the hand grips built into the backs of the seats. (For some reason, the overhead grips offered on subways in Boston and New York haven't been incorporated into the design of most CTA trains. I lived in Boston for 7 years in the 80's, and I personally think that the omission of overhead grips is a serious design flaw, but it's one I've learned to live with.)

Whether one is talking about the story about the decapitated man who showed "no signs of trauma" or the photograph which contradicted the point it was trying to make, the thing that these stories have in common is that they illustrate sloppiness on the part of the editors and journalists in charge of those stories. Such obvious examples of sloppiness lead one to wonder how many of the things we've read and assumed to be true because they were in major newspapers and magazines have been attributable to similar sloppiness.

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