deadly journalism alert: “planners say” tunnels cost money

James Fallows of the Atlantic has been pushing back on the habit of journalists to resist all statements of objective fact:

In today's political environment, when so many simple facts are disputed, journalists can feel abashed about stating plainly what is true. With an anticipatory cringe about the angry letters they will receive or the hostile blog posts that will appear, they instead cover themselves by writing, "according to most scientists, the sun rises in the east, although critics say…."

How does this play out in transit journalism?  Very, very often, journalists present a transit expert stating a fact and someone else expressing a desire, as though this were a "he said, she said" disagreement.  For example, here's Mike Rosenberg of Bay Area News Group, about the routing of California High Speed Rail through the suburb of Burlingame just south of San Francisco.

Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground …  State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.

Note the tension of the two stem verbs.  "Burlingame officials want" and "state planners say."  It's set up to sound like "he said, she said." 

But these two sentences don't describe a disagreement at all.  Burlingame city officials are stating a desire, to have the line underground, to which state rail planners are responding with information about consequences, namely that undergrounding would be more expensive.   That's not a disagreement; that's staff doing its job.

The disagreement is actually about who should pay for the undergounding that Burlingame wants.  The state says that if a city wants high speed rail to go underground, it should pay the difference.  The article quotes Burlingame mayor Terry Nagel's response:

Nagel said Burlingame could spend the city's entire $33 million annual budget on funding the tracks and barely make a dent in the price tag.

"It's not even a possibility," Nagel said Wednesday.

Note that mayor understands that building the line underground through his city will cost more than building the line on the surface.  In fact, he's clear that it will cost massively more, more than his entire city budget.  The cost is not in dispute.  So why did we need "state planners say" in this sentence?

State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks …

All other things being equal, underground construction is more expensive than surface.  This is a fact about the universe, readily found in any transport engineering textbook, so it's misleading to describe it as a claim or allegation. 

Even if the journalist were thinking like a divorce lawyer, for whom there may be no verifiable reality outside of the fevered imaginations of the two parties, he still could have said that "all parties agree that undergrounding costs much, much more than surface."  The journalist knows this, because he has quoted the Mayor of Burlingame displaying a complete grasp of that fact, even though the fact is inconvenient for his side.

So let's read that whole passage again:

Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground …  State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.

Look again the three main verbs:  want – say – fear.  Emotion – alleged fact – emotion.  And both emotions are on the same side!  It's as predictable as the structure of a pop song.  The people of Burlingame get their emotions recorded twice, while in opposition we hear only a fact about cost, presented as though it were the voice of some oppressor, crushing these honest folks who are trying to defend their homes.

Journalists!  If you want to help people form coherent views that bear some relation to realty, ask yourself these questions:

  • What facts are agreed on by all parties to the dispute, and by experts in the field?  State those as facts.
  • If facts are not agreed to by all parties, are they agreed to by people expert in the subject?  If so, say "experts generally agree that …"  This can still be wimpy, like "experts agree that the sun rises in the east," but even that is vastly more accurate than "state planners say …"
  • Are there widely shared values motivating both sides?  If so, make them visible.  You may or may not agree that High Speed Rail is a good policy, but its motivating purpose is not to torture the people of Burlingame.  Drop in a standard sentence about the larger economic and environmental purposes High Speed Rail advocates claim the line will serve.  We know what values the burghers of Burlingame are defending — "home" — but what values are those on other side defending, and might these also matter to the reader?
  • Are there strong emotions on both sides?  If so, describe them.  In this case, don't just quote "state planners," who are professionally compelled to be balanced and judicious.   Quote a committed and informed High Speed Rail advocate making a stronger, more vivid statement about the actions of cities like Burlingame, and the cumulative burden they place on getting a line built.  In today's world of expert blogs, you don't even need to pick up the phone; just quote Robert Cruikshank off his California High Speed Rail Blog, for example …

[Burlingame expects] the rest of the state to essentially subsidize their property values. I cannot emphasize enough how absurd and out-of-touch that view is. At a time when property values have crashed hard in other parts of the state, why on earth would anyone in Riverside or Stockton or San Diego or East LA believe that Burlingame property owners deserve state aid to maintain their land values?

Bottom line:  If your story sounds like passionate people are in conflict with soulless bean-counting bureaucrats, you probably don't understand your story yet.  You may in fact have a story about venal, conniving bureaucrats, or about frightened or lazy bureaucrats blowing smoke, but the rules above will help you figure out if that's the case.  You may also have a story about expert public servants doing their jobs, and if you want any honest and dedicated experts to be willing to work in those jobs, you owe it to them to consider that possibility.

I would welcome some push-back from professional journalists on this.  (Email link is under my photo in the next column to the right.)   Please forward a link to any journalists in your life!   Me, I'm just a consumer of the product, and often not a very happy one. 

16 Responses to deadly journalism alert: “planners say” tunnels cost money

  1. Carter R January 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Transit Pop Song Formula:
    Verse – Chorus – Verse – Lawsuit – Chorus – Verse – Appeal – Consent Decree – Guitar Solo – Verse – Chorus – Outro

  2. Rob January 6, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    Nicely said – but applies much more broadly than transit and transportation. What does it mean when, as a society, we are unable to agree to even the most basic facts, and need to “balance” facts with craziness? It means that knowledge and professionalism become meaningless.

  3. Mad Park January 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Was about to write nearly the same words as Rob above – now I needn’t. Teevee started it, but the internet has indeed made “knowledge and professionalism… meaningless.” Thanks, Jarrett, for expressing something needing said.

  4. Simon January 7, 2011 at 3:33 am #

    You make it sound as if people are interested in dispassionate argument, whereas the reality seems to be that more people like to have their emotions triggered than to analyse an argument.
    I’d suggest figuring out ways to frame your transit argument to inflame the emotions of your potential supporters rather than relying on newspapers for logical analysis.

  5. Alon Levy January 7, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    It’s a general trend in any reporting in the US. Journalists have been told to seek balance above all, so they can’t even bring themselves to talk about objective facts, and quote people based on expertise instead of ideological affirmative action (also see: any article quoting Wendell Cox). If you think it’s bad with transportation, look at how many science articles try to give creationists or climate change deniers equal time.

  6. Tom West January 7, 2011 at 6:59 am #

    I agree with you – I also hate it when reporters state agreed facts as being what side has “said”. In your example, no one was disputing the tunnels would be more expensive, so to add a “state planners” preface is ridiculous.
    More widely, using “experts say” is terrible writing. For example, Wikipedia has explicit rules agianst using phrases like “experts say”, describing them as weasel words. In academic writing, it simply isn’t allowed (the paper wouldn’t get published). If journalists can’t give a source, they shouldn’t be reporting it.

  7. RTA January 7, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Although both the town and the planners no doubt agree that a tunnel would be more expensive, only the planners made a statement regarding an estimate for the cost differential. It is that context-setting estimate that the reporter was attributing — as he should have — not the general fact that tunnels are much more expensive, which I think is implicit in the article and the headline.

  8. EngineerScotty January 7, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Time to pull out one of my favorite Blackadder scenes:
    Edmund Blackadder: Look, there’s no need to panic. Someone in the crew will know how to steer this thing.
    Captain Rum: The crew, milord?
    Edmund: Yes, the crew.
    Rum: What crew?
    Edmund: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.
    Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.
    Edmund: Oh, really? [starting to get the picture]
    Rum: Yahs. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

  9. FredInRVA January 7, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    @RTA, I think you’re splitting a hair here. True the writer is paraphrasing the planners in giving their estimate, but while you are technically correct that the planners are the only ones citing a specific cost, the wording emphasis and style of the sentence clearly imply a truthiness to the estimate and tend to emphasize the emotional reaction of the residents.

  10. John January 7, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    I think he wrote, “state rail planners say” as a way of citing the source for the cost estimate, not as a way of creating a dispute.

  11. J B January 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Saying “State planners” also plays on people’s distrust of bureaucrats.

  12. JJJ January 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    I agree that the article is aiming for a dispute.
    I also hate the way journalists will copy in a quote and offer no commentary on the facts.
    Some are concerned about the new train. Wendy, a single mother said “thousands of people are being killed left and right by this new thing”.
    The article almost never follows up with “Wendy is incorrect, nobody has died” making it seem like what Wendy said is a fact.

  13. Rob January 8, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    In other news, the headline on Paul Krugman’s blog this morning is “Views Still Differ on Shape of Planet”…

  14. Thad January 10, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Well as a former journalism student of the top journalism school in the country, I guess I have probably the most expertise. Based on the title of the article: “State rail to Peninsula: Want underground tracks? Find the money,” the story is about who is going to pay for the Peninsula’s wish to underground the tracks, not if the sides agree on how expensive the project is. This is re-emphasized in the lede: “Burlingame leaders say they are preparing to strike back after California’s high-speed rail chief told them the state will build its tracks underground on the Peninsula only if local taxpayers foot the massive bill.” The lede summarizes the whole point of the article, which is underground tracks are expensive, the Peninsula wants them, but the state isn’t footing the massive bill. Nothing in the article leading up to the excerpt you pulled suggests that there is any disagreement on this fact by anyone.
    Journalism runs on the premise of “show don’t tell.” Even though the reporter doesn’t out right say “building underground tracks is expensive” as a state of fact, he does “show” it by stating that “[t]he $43 billion project is already facing a funding shortfall of $30 billion, even before adding in potential extra costs of underground tracks on the Peninsula,” then adding the “state planners say, yada yada” then having the opposing side (Burligame officials) agree with the mayor’s quote. The fact that both sides find the project’s expense being outside of their means says how expensive it is, or highlights how broke both parties are. Could he have cited some actual price figures for projects like this one? Well yeah, but we must also remember that journalists, especially those not covering a niche market like transit planning, are not experts on the majority of what they report and often due to the time constraints placed on them, may not have the time to become experts.
    The point about the “emotion-alleged fact-emotion” structure seems mute too as it is more of a one side to one side. The position of the state planners on the issue has been rooted in the costs, not the overall benefits of the project which was demonstrated throughout the article. Every official state source has been cited talking about the costs of the project and it’s funding shortfall. The Peninsula communities are more concerned about the NIMBY effects. The cost is why the state planners want the tracks above ground, the NIMBY effects are why the communities want them below ground.

  15. Alex B. January 10, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Show, don’t tell is fine. However, the journalist could do a lot better by just citing the cost figure from a document. If he/she has to ask the state planners about it, that’s fine – but then quoting them as ‘state planners say’ personalizes the cost figure, making a cold, hard fact more adversarial than it actually is.

  16. Thad January 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    I did agree that the cost figure should have just been given as well, just explaining why the reporter didn’t do it. Another thing is that readers read in their own biases/beliefs/perceptions into the journalism they read, so while you may perceive the the “state planners say” to be adversarial, I didn’t find it adversarial and the one commenter evidently didn’t either. I think the point Jarrett is trying to argue is largely lost in the full context of the article at hand. Again, the article is about who is footing the bill for underground tracks, not the merits of HSR or some debate about whether the costs are expensive or not.