Sunday, January 31, 2010

How To Lie With Statistics: Architects Are Trying To Squeeze Through the Eye of a Needle with a Claim At-Grade Rail Is as Safe as Elevated; Plus:

Advertiser Reporter Misquotes City Official

Let’s start with a few photographs in response to another tortured attempt by the local AIA chapter as reported in the Advertiser by Sean Hao to suggest at-grade rail transit is as safe as the elevated system Honolulu intends to build:
Fatality narrowly avoided in Phoenix at-grade rail crash.

These photos show accidents involving Phoenix Metro’s new at-grade system, which opened in December 2008. You don’t have to look long and hard to find many reports on crashes involving this at-grade rail system. Phoenix averaged one crash a week in its first year of operation. (About half of those collisions were along a mile and one-quarter strip in a dense part of Phoenix; the AIA wants Honolulu rail to run at-grade through densely-packed Chinatown.) Luckily, there were no fatalities, but that indeed was pure luck, as photos of a van wrapped around a utility pole suggest.

Today’s story in the Advertiser recalls a book graduate students in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism were required to read way back when. Here’s part of a review of “How to Lie With Statistics” at

“Although many of the examples used in the book are charmingly dated, the cautions are timeless. Statistics are rife with opportunities for misuse, from 'gee-whiz graphs' that add nonexistent drama to trends, to 'results' detached from their method and meaning, to statistics' ultimate bugaboo--faulty cause-and-effect reasoning.”

A generation ago, journalism students were cautioned about over-reliance on statistics tossed out by their sources. That caution seems to be missing today.

The Architects’ Futile Argument

The local architects want you to believe their preferred at-grade rail system is just as safe or even safer than the fully elevated system Honolulu intends to build. Just ask yourself: How can a train that crosses dozens of streets, crosswalks and intersections be as safe as a train that crosses none of them? It can’t be, no matter what statistics the architects want to push your way through the seemingly most gullible and/or complicit journalist in town. Which prompts the second major topic of today’s post:

Sean Hao’s Inaccuracies Revealed

Advertiser reporter Sean Hao’s journalistic integrity has become an issue in the paper’s coverage of the Honolulu rail project. The slant of his reporting – taken as a whole – has a decidedly anti-rail bent that’s revealed by what he chooses to highlight, whom to interview and what to ignore.

He ignored (and continues to ignore) the results of a City-sponsored public opinion survey scientifically conducted in September by local firm Q-Mark that revealed strong support for rail. His only mention of the poll has been about its cost and the fact that Q-Mark is not listed as a subsidiary of City contractor Parsons Brinkerhoff. That’s because Q-Mark is not a PB subsidiary.

Hao’s reporting for today’s story is an obvious continuation of his anti-rail slant – plus, it reveals a lack of enterprise and an inattention to accuracy, to wit:

• Sean Hao’s Selective Use of Quotes

Hao quotes architect Peter Vincent today and presumably obtained these quotes specifically for the safety story. He also quotes City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka, but Yoshioka’s quotes are old quotes – his remarks at a January 21 City Hall press conference. There’s nothing new from Yoshioka in response to Vincent’s statement that the City has “a skewed perspective” on safety.

I attended the January 21 press conference, recorded Yoshioka’s comments and transcribed them for a post here at Yes2Rail the next day. Both Yoshioka and APTA President William Millar addressed the safety issue at that event, but I have to believe Yoshioka would have said even more to refute architect Vincent had he been given the opportunity to do so. Hao appears to have simply used an old Yoshioka comment on safety that lacked the punch of a strong refutation he could have given to the architects’ recent at-grade assertions.

• Sean Hao’s Inaccurate Reporting

My video recording contains what Yoshioka actually said at the press conference. It's standard practice for both broadcast and print reporters to record interviews and press conferences to ensure accuracy, but accuracy eluded Sean Hao in this story. Here’s Hao’s reporting of Yoshioka quote in today’s story:

“You’re elevated. You’re completely separated from the roadways (and) you’re in a protected environment,” he said. “What incidents are we going to have as opposed to an at-grade transit that’s crossing active streets? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Here’s what Yoshioka actually said on January 21. Not only is Sean Hao’s version inaccurate, the words and phrases he selectively chose to use eliminated much of Yoshioka’s strong description of at-grade rail's hazards:

“You’re elevated. You’re totally separated from the roadway. You’re in a protected environment and completely separated out…. What cars are flying at that level above the ground? And what people are flying through the air at that level above the ground? As opposed to an at-grade transit that’s crossing active streets with active vehicles turning in front of the train, with pedestrians crossing in front of the train. That (comparison) doesn’t seem to make logical sense to me.”

Putting quote marks around a newsmaker’s statements suggests only one thing – that this is exactly what he said. Hao did not accurately report Yoshioka’s remarks, and I’d bet the farm that he did not attempt to contact Yoshioka for fresh comments in response to architect Vincent's disparaging remarks about the City’s perspective on safety.

• Sean Hao Reports Half the Story

Deep in the story, reporter Hao gets around to mentioning the safety record of Phoenix’s new at-grade system, which completed its first year of service in December. Here’s what he wrote:

“No fatalities were reported during the first year of service, although the train was involved in several major accidents with autos.”

What Hao couldn’t bring himself to report was that Phoenix Metro experienced an accident a week in that year. By avoiding that fact, Hao misrepresents the record of the nation’s newest at-grade rail system – a fact easily accessed from numerous on-line reports by Phoenix news media.

When taken in its entirety, Hao's reporting on rail is highly suspect at best, and in his apparent determination to convince us at-grade is as safe as elevated, his reporting has taken a darker turn. Honolulu citizens must use common sense in assessing the architects' claims of at-grade safety. Unfortunately, Honolulu Advertiser readers must also be wary of the paper's reporting on the entire rail story.


AlexHawaiiKai said...


Hao can "Sean Hao" call himself a real reporter when he picks & chooses & edits the facts on a story that means so much to so many people here in town & delivers ONLY a BIASED, IMBALANCED & COMPLETELY SLANTED perspective? Hao can he not take personal responsibility as a reporter to represent "both sides of the issue" to properly educate the papers 240,000+ readers? Is this really Hao a credible news source takes a leadership position in a community?

It's almost as if Sean treats the writing of his mainstream (rail) stories as personal editorial opinion pieces. If that's the goal, then they should be filed under the OPINION section rather than the front page.

I have to say that this is truly disappointing, since Sean knows both sides of the issue very well. Haoever, Sean invests his time & energy in trying to kill the project rather than delivering balanced news.

Hao can the Advertiser allow this to take place? Is this Hao he was taught in Journalism 150?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree.

It does seem that day in and day out Sean Hao appears to be using the "hard news" pages of the HNN/Advertiser to advocate against the elevated fixed guideway system the city has choosen to build.

The paper's management needs to address this problem. It should remove Mr. Hao from this beat and reassign it to a reporter who knows the difference between reporting the news and writing advocacy/opinion pieces. KW