Wednesday, July 08, 2009

RTFFP, traffic edition

Oh, bother. Didn't we already have the discussion about ledes like this?

RALEIGH -- Here's one good thing to say about this bad economy: For the time being, our traffic isn't getting a lot worse.

Yes. So having thanked the recession for the decline in traffic deaths and airline delays, could we shut up with thanking it for stuff just a bit? Thank you.

But there's a bigger issue behind the cliche here, and "for the time being" is a hint. We're looking at the staff-written version of a story that hits the wires regularly, often with enough breakout information that it can be localized easily:

WASHINGTON--With exceptions including Charlotte, drivers are spending less time stuck in rush-hour traffic for a second straight year. It's the first-ever two-year decline in congestion as high gas prices and the economic downturn force many Americans to change how they commute.

"For the time being," "are spending" -- it's pretty clear that we're talking about (shuffle, rustle) July 2009, isn't it? Except that we aren't. Back to Raleigh's 1A epic:

The average Triangle driver wasted 34 hours and burned 22 gallons of gas while stewing in traffic jams in 2007. That's 2 hours and 1 gallon worse than in 2006 but the same as in 2005, according to a new national report on urban road congestion.

Commuters across the country cut back on their driving as gas prices rose sharply in 2007 and spiked above $4 a gallon in 2008. Pump prices are comfortably below $3 these days, but traffic counts have stayed down because we have fewer jobs to drive to -- and less money to spend at the mall.

Hmm. If our data represent 2007, why are we talking about stuff that was measured in 2008 ("spiked above $4 a gallon") or -- apparently -- hasn't been measured at all ("traffic counts have stayed down")? Wonder what the AP says:

Demographers attribute the decrease to a historic cutback in driving as commuters reduced solo trips, took public transit or carpooled after gas prices surged toward $4 a gallon and then the economy faltered.

If we asked "demographers" why those trends are happening now, you could see why they might say that. But that would have been more than a bit misleading. Going by the data provided with the study (see the chart on page 7), gas prices in late 2007 had fallen from their summer peak, but not as far as they had the previous year. And if by "faltered" we mean the month when -- it's official! -- the recession began, we're also talking about December 2007, the last month of the year our "stuck in traffic" data actually cover.

Granted, the abovementioned chart does suggest some trends into late 2008 -- but those are from 23 urban areas, not 439, and they suggest that traffic volume rose in summer (as usual) as people, in other ways, did what they often do. They aren't the data we get the "stuck in traffic" average from. So why do we have a frontpage story here?

Talking about traffic is sort of like talking about the weather. If you get on an elevator that's occupied by a stranger and you each want to assure the other that you haven't just escaped from a prison for the statistically deranged, it's really safe to bitch about the weather or the traffic. That makes it a good story too. Alas, in this case, it's a story that has almost nothing to do with the numbers that seem to have propelled it to the front. That's unfortunate, because if newspapers (and the AP, which shouldn't get off the hook here) would only take numbers seriously, they'd find it a lot easier to make sure that good stories were credible as well.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Traffic-count data is collected continuously in many urban areas. It is at least plausible to ask the relevant state department's press spokesperson for actual counts on major local freeways to see if the data supports the supposed trend.

1:47 AM, July 09, 2009  
Anonymous onceahack said...

Undoubtedly it is possible to find out from the relevant state agency's traffic spokesperson whether their current numbers are consistent with this presumed trend. I think Anonymous means to say that it is at least plausible that someone each the local paper did so before localizing the lede.

I guess that's plausible, but if they did, why didn't they add the current data to the story and attribute it to the source they had contacted?

After all, if I had done all that work, I would want my readers to benefit from the hard data I had obtained. I would also want them to see evidence that what they were reading included the work of an actual local journalist rather than being just whatever copy happened to come across the wire.

1:05 PM, July 11, 2009  
Anonymous onceahack said...

Oops! Make that "plausible that someone at each local paper did so" in that first graf.

1:08 PM, July 11, 2009  

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