Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Straight to the moon, AP

If you're a certified Testy Copy Editor, you don't need a weatherman to know what's coming after a hed like "By the numbers":

And if you put the oil in gallon milk jugs and lined them up, they would stretch about 11,000 miles. That's a round trip from the Gulf to London, BP's headquarters, and a side trip from New Orleans to Washington for Hayward to testify.

For you civilians out there, the gallon milk jug is part of a continuum that includes the 12-ounce soda can and the Washington Monument. Writers use those measurements* to calculate the number of trips from the Earth to the Moon, or from Kabul to Kankakee, that some heretofore abstract number can be made to represent. It's called "context," geddit?

The trouble is --as the AP makes perfectly, annoyingly clear in this case -- that it's no such thing. What does it mean for some quantity of something not to fill the Superdome? Is that better or worse than not being able to fill the Silverdome? What about an open-air stadium, and can we do it while they're still playing soccer?

I'd say it gets worse, but it doesn't. The tale starts off stupid and runs a series of variations on stupid, stupider and still more stupider:

Overwhelmed and saddened by the gargantuan size of the Gulf oil spill?

Not to minimize the environmental catastrophe, but adding a little mathematical context to the spill size can put it in a different perspective. The Mississippi River, for example, pours as much water into the Gulf of Mexico in 38 seconds as the BP oil leak has done in two months.

Well, you just did -- minimize the catastrophe, I mean. Changing the scale of measurement isn't context, it doesn't provide a "different perspective," and it offers no indication whatsoever of why such an allegedly different perspective would do anything to relieve your whelmedness.

I'm pretty sure the third sentence there isn't deliberately comparing water to water, but even so, it's hard to see it as anything but an especially blinkered version of the Coke-can fallacy. "Context" would be --- oh, telling me how the proportion of oil to water is changing week on week; if X much water "pours into" the Gulf each day, how much is leaving, and how is that affected by the different estimates of the size of the BP spill. What's the proportion at which different levels of harm occur? Is that different in deeper water than in shallower water? For different types of ocean life. Can you draw any comparisons between a steady flow and an all-at-once accident? Those might take some work (also known as "reporting"), which presumably is why you have "science" writers on the payroll. But they might be enlightening, and at least they wouldn't be as embarrassing as this:

Want your own piece of this spill? If all the oil spilled were divided up and equal amounts given to every American, we would all get about four soda cans full of crude oil that no one really wants.

Maybe the AP's looking for ways to keep the Gulf story prominent after nine weeks. Fine. But playing context-free calculator tricks isn't the way to do it. This is technically the AP's fault, but member papers who ran it -- Charlotte's online play is at top, followed by the Freep's 1A teaser -- aren't innocent. You aren't obliged to print crap just because the AP transmits it. You'd be better off to spike it, and in this case to call the AP and politely suggest that it stop transmitting crap.

* In case you're wondering, yes. We make fun of you when you do it. Every time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

preach it!

11:59 AM, June 22, 2010  
Anonymous Q. Pheevr said...

Yeah, but how big is the oil spill compared to Wales? (And, for bonus points, how far is it from Reading?)

2:36 PM, June 22, 2010  
Anonymous Q. Pheevr said...

Oh, look—there's an app for that.

2:53 PM, June 22, 2010  
Anonymous Sam said...

Thank you! I hate these arbitrary comparisons. This is non-journalism related, but you hear them all the time on Food Network. Some PR flak for Fruit Roll-ups says something inane like, "We make enough roll-ups every year that if you laid them end to end, they'd stretch from the earth to the moon 3.75 times!"

Hot damn! Tell me something that matters. It wouldn't be so bad, but that's what EVERY PR flak says that the channel has on.

7:53 PM, June 22, 2010  

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