This article was originally published on The Well-Read Man, on June 20, 2017.
Los Angeles Smog Edition
The last twenty years have been tough for the news industry. Although I still subscribe to a daily newspaper (“Now available five days per week!”), the service is a bit of a dying art, as well as a decreasing source of income for media companies. As people look elsewhere for their information, news organizations are doing all they can to grab more eyeballs, and more advertising-generated income based on those views. And since “news” often means “bad news,” it is no surprise that major newspapers push the misery in an attempt to reach a broader audience.
Consider, for example, an article from the Los Angeles Times, uploaded to the newspaper’s website on June 16, 2017. Coming on the heels of an announcement by President Trump that America will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the article, titled “‘Very unhealthy’ smog levels expected during heat wave, SoCal regulators warn,” raises environmental concerns stemming from a short-term confluence of pollution and high temperatures. The headline itself is accurate: officials at South Coast Air Quality Management District did issue a warning of “unhealthy to very unhealthy” air in tandem with a heatwave expected over the Los Angeles Basin in the upcoming days. But beyond that meaningful notification for those who may suffer from lung ailments, the story goes on to pontificate about the dire consequences of the AQMD’s statement.
The high point of the article is a graph showing levels of lung-damaging ozone in Southern California since the mid-1970s:
The article provides this conclusion immediately following the graph:
The health warnings come as Southern California has experienced an increase in bad air days following decades of improving air quality.
Using data from the AQMD’s web site, the article author buttresses this ominous caution by pointing out how “last year the region experienced its worst smog season in years, logging 132 bad air days and ozone concentrations not seen since 2009.”
Again, all of this information is accurate, and yet, instead of being a simple story about a short-term air alert, the article inserts forty years of pollution history, leading to a dire warning about “the worst smog season in years.” In other words: “We’re all gonna die!” Well, perhaps I am reading a bit too much into the text, but the article nonetheless alters the true meaning of the data in a way that changes mundane news into the biggest news story you’ve heard about pollution this week. That ought to sell some papers.
The article exaggerates the impact of the core story by ignoring or misrepresenting three important aspects of the reported data. The first deals with “an increase in bad-air days following decades of improving air quality.” That statement is based on a lone data point, the 2016 number, which shows 132 total bad-air days, compared to the 2015 number of 113 such days. But this higher 2016 data point comes in the midst of a downward trend in the data, one that includes localized ups and downs. Although the 2016 numbers are up, concluding that there is an overall increase “following decades of improving air quality” is a hasty generalization, since a lone data point is insufficient to indicate a reversing trend.
Secondly, the graph included in the article, while meaningful, hides the fact that the standard by which air quality is measured in the Los Angeles area has been tweaked repeatedly since the 1970s. The plotted data uses the current federal standard, established in 2015, that defines unhealthy levels of ozone as anything beyond 70 parts per billion (PPB). But this new level represents the third adjustment to the standard over the years. The previous adjustments came in at 75 PPB in 2008, 80 PPB in 1997, and 120 PPB before that. As technology has brought a dramatic improvement in air quality, the standard has improved with it, but with the side effect that an errant use of this standard can indicate bad news when no such news exists. If the article had charted the number of bad air days under the original 120 PPB standard, it would have shown a significant decrease between 1975 and 2016, from 194 bad-air days decades ago, down to just 17 such days last year. By adjusting the standard, the opportunity for panic remains high.
Finally, the article fails to take into account changes in population and technology that occurred over the forty years covered by the chart. Population in the Greater Los Angeles region has nearly doubled over that timeframe, from around ten million in the mid-1970s, to near nineteen million today. Despite this increase in residential numbers, and the parallel increase in automobiles, air quality in Southern California has continued to improve. And with the advent of hybrid and all-electric cars, there is every reason to expect this trend to continue unabated.
The article does not make any direct claim that calamity is coming. But by using a single data point to skew long-term conclusions, and by glossing over the history of improvement in the area, the text communicates an undertone of future death and destruction in the very air you breathe. This reporting style shows up across the spectrum of news topics. From healthcare to national politics, and from race relations to climate change, the trends as reported in national and local news sources paint a ghastly image of a doomed world.
Certainly, there are truly bad-news stories, and it is entirely appropriate to understand current events and take action based on the latest information. But by turning anecdotes and even dull news into potential calamities, we run the risk of making choices that are even more harmful than the core data could ever predict.
[Image Credits: traveljunction.com; Edvard Munch; Los Angeles Times]