Monday, April 4, 2011

Media Rail Scrutiny Could Use Some Context

“Don’t pick fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” the adage says. Newspapers win those fights, but if it’s comment you offer, it shouldn't have to become combat.

A torrent of newspaper coverage has come down on Ansaldo, the company that won the “core systems” contract for the Honolulu rail project. Virtually all of it has a negative tone about issues the company has experienced in some of the cities for which it has provided rail cars.

“Cities frustrated by rail car marker” headlines today’s story. Having written quite a few, we know the challenge of getting across the essence of a story in a headline's few words. You risk leaving out too much – like that one does.

A more inclusive headline also noting company successes around the world wouldn’t fit and, frankly, wouldn’t fit the general thrust of the story. Another adage is that negativity sells, and there’s been a lot of it driving the rail story for years.

Who’s Who?

Today’s story relies a great deal on comments highly critical of Ansaldo by the “transportation deputy” to a Los Angeles County supervisor. We have their names and their quotes; we don’t have any context about their views on transportation in general and rail in particular.

Does the supervisor generally support or oppose rail projects? Are the deputy’s comments motivated by something not found in today’s Star-Advertiser story? In search of context, we did what the reporter undoubtedly did – used the Internet to find his sources.

One of the first things we found made us wonder: Is the supervisor’s enthusiasm for HOT LanesHOT Lanes, for Pete’s sake! – at the heart of his negative views about the train car manufacturer?

‘Ansaldo Critic Likes HOT Lanes’

And just like that, we have a headline that’s both true and misleading, because we don’t think for a second that the one has anything to do with the other.

We highlight the supervisor’s support for HOT Lanes, which Honolulu rail critics embrace as a preferred alternative, as an example of how easy it is to “report” a snippet of information and come to an erroneous conclusion.

The Star-Advertiser did allow this much: “Globally the company has seen some success,” but even the use of some looks like a begrudging acknowledgement of what Ansaldo executives would call “great.”

So let’s wrap this up with our own generalization: Media criticism of Honolulu rail will outweigh the positives you read, see or hear about the project. That’s just the way it is with journalism, and it’s worth remembering.

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