Have you ever read a news story that just seemed, well, odd? This, to me, is one of those stories.
Perhaps I have been tainted by a book I recently read and enjoyed, titled “Freakonomics.” In that book, an economist slices data in ways that challenge the “conventional” views of the world, and shows how an understanding of data can help one make more sense of the world around us.
One of my favorite vignettes in the book is the discussion about airline vs automobile fatalities. Yes, we all “know” that it is safer to fly than to ride in a car. That’s conventional wisdom. The authors point out, however, that if you evaluate the data differently, by assessing time spent “in the seat” then it turns out to be a dead heat (no pun intended.) the number of fatalities per hour spent traveling in that mode is statistically even. Go figure.
So that leads me to this story. Here we have all the makings of bad journalism–reporting misleading facts, quoting of inflammatory language, and the obligatory “counter view” at the end of the article.
Let’s tackle the facts. In the article you will find this:
“We should have experienced a significant decline in speeding-related fatalities, given the tremendous gains in safety-belt use coupled with the increasingly safe design of vehicles,” said Lt. Col. Jim Champagne of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission and chairman of the GSHA.
That statement follows a paragraph where we are informed that “The number of speeding-related deaths is not declining” and “Speeding is a major factor in about one-third of the 42,000 traffic deaths a year in the USA.”
Hmmm… The “numbers” are not declining? Sounds like we have a problem on our hands, right? As the article points out, vehicles are far safer than ever before, and yet the “numbers” are not declining.
But wait just one minute! The article then points out that “The nation’s traffic fatality rate last year was a record low of 1.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” Now we begin to see that in fact, fatalities have declined, and we are just spending more and more time on the road. It’s not that speeding is more deadly. It’s that we are spending more and more time on the road.
But wait, there’s more! The author can’t just let the record stand corrected. The author uses the word “But.” Yup, after telling the reader that the actual rate is lower the author points out “But the number of people killed in accidents each year has remained fairly constant as the number of vehicles and miles driven increased.”
So now we see that perhaps Lt Col Champagne was speaking in hyperbole when he argued against speeding. What’s worse, he called the accidents “carnage” on the highways. Inflammatory language, to be sure. Especially since, according to Dictionary.com, carnage is “Massive slaughter, as in war; a massacre.”
Bottom line? Read carefully–and look for all the details. Ask questions about the data presented. In this case, the article at least presented the death rate, and not just raw data. Imagine if the author had chosen to leave just that one bit of data out.
So the question I have is: Which do readers notice more, and why?