Media Gets Dry Spring Story Exactly Wrong – Mistake An Example of “News Management”
Media Gets It Wrong Because They Write Story Based on DEP Press Releases
News Management – Again
Mistakes can be extremely revealing.
Follow me as we look at the chronology and content to illustrate how a relatively minor factual mistake reveals a serious set of problems, I’ll call them “news management“.
My rant will bounce back and forth between the specific factual mistake and the systemic problems it reveals, so try to follow my bouncing ball, which may not connect all the intermediate dots between the particular and the systemic. I close with perhaps the most significant observation and a prediction, so before you hit the delete button, at least scroll down to read that!
Let’s start with the specific factual mistake (in boldface) made in this May 12 south jersey story: ‘It’s a mutual fight’ to keep mosquitoes from infesting N.J.
A wet spring means that 2013 is already looking to be a boom year for mosquito broods. Coupled with the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, this summer could be overwrought with the pesky pests.
Whether you look at the Rutgers rainfall data (above) or the DEP stream flow and groundwater data, 2013 was a dry spring, not a “wet spring”.
That’s why last week I wrote that NJ could be slipping into an early drought.
So, how did this reporter get the completely opposite idea that it was a “wet spring”?
Most likely from her sources, who have a strong bias. The reporter obviously did not independently research the readily accessible and simple data from Rutgers and DEP. [Or the maps on Todd Bates' blog.]
The reporter’s sources were DEP and the County Mosquito Control Commission – sources with strong institutional and professional bias. [The national weatherman was not quoted on NJ data and was not the source for any "wet spring" claim, and instead offered a wet summer forecast - a projection of future conditions, not current conditions.]
Basic reporting methods should prevent this kind of problem, but they didn’t. Why?
So, lets go back and take a look at exactly how this story developed.
Just days after I wrote that “slipping into drought” May 4 post, which harshly criticized DEP’s failure to update the NJ Water Supply Master Plan, DEP issued a press release on May 7 -
Gee, I thought it was very odd for DEP to be warning about standing water, at a time when it hadn’t rained in 2 weeks and conditions were dry as a bone.
[The heavy rainfall of the last few days came after DEP issued the press release. Conditions were dry when DEP issued that May 7 press release - and not conducive to mosquito breeding. That rainfall is not included in the Rutgers or DEP data. Regardless, DEP did not mention a forecast for a wet summer.]
Until I realized that this was a typical DEP spin and divert tactic – tactics which have been magnified tremendously by Superstorm Sandy.
Instead of focusing on any potential drought or explaining why we need a Water Supply Master Plan Update, DEP warned the public about this: (even the timing is odd, because a mosquito warning even DEP admits is not typically issued until “until late summer”):
Concerns are elevated this year because of Superstorm Sandy has increased potential opportunities for mosquito breeding, which could increase the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, including WNV.
“This season will be especially challenging because Superstorm Sandy has created new places for mosquitoes to breed such as wet debris piles and depressions left by fallen trees,” the [Health] Commissioner explained.
Sandy has become the universal cover story – sucking the oxygen out of virtually every other environmental story, marginalizing critics, and providing DEP plenty of cover.
And sure enough, literally within hours of that DEP press release, the Start Ledger ran the DEP’s story, with the Sandy hook – a remarkable piece of stenography based exclusively on the DEP press release. Another outcome of Sandy: More opportunities for mosquitoes to breed
As I Tweeted at the time, this is the responsive spincycle you get when a former Star Ledger reporter, Larry Ragonese, heads the DEP Press Office.
But that’s no biggie, DEP Press Office spin and Star Ledger stenography are routine at this point. In fact, I have documented that the Christie DEP Press Office has broken all records for issuing press releases (see: DEP Press Office Wins Prize)
And in addition to the number of press release, the subject matter of those releases in highly suggestive.
On would presume that DEP press releases should reflect scientific priorities, in terms of subject matter.
One would be wrong.
DEP has failed to warn the public about the highest priority and most pressing problems, which scientists, the public, and DEP’s own science found are the risks of climate change, air pollution (which has now become a matter of individual behavior), water pollution (similarly narrowed to residential fertilizer use), public health and safety threats from toxic chemicals, land use, loss of wildlife habitat, forests, and farms to development, crumbling infrastructure, etc, -
There is a common theme: these are all traditional regulatory governed issues caused by economic development and industrial activities.
But to the Christie DEP, government, nature and individual human behaviors are the cause of problems, not business and industry.
Illustrating these bizarre priorities, we note that while DEP Press Office virtually ignored all the above issues, DEP press releases have warned the public – repeatedly – about the hazards associated with naturally occurring or individual consumer behavioral things like mosquitos, and litter, and hungry bears and lawn fertilizers and recreational boating and wildfires and horny deer and abandoned buildings and boats and killer trees and deadly camping and naturally occuring radon and pheasant killing snowstorms and celebrating weakness in a climate change program and viral deer and “naturally occurring” algae blooms and dams and tree killing bugs and wood stoves and fireplaces and DEP culture and turning industrial pollution prevention into a homeowners program and oyster poachers and scary snakes and “red tape” and even fucking bedbugs!
There are common themes here amongst these warped perceptions and priorities too – nature is scary (not industry, chemicals and technology); government regulation is the problem; volunatary personal behaviors are the solution, and don’t bother business and industry with costly red tape.
But the initial Star Ledger story was accurate factually, while the followup regional south jersey story was not.
Getting an important fact wrong is very different.
So – how did the south jersey story get the “wet spring” fact so wrong?
My theory is that it was intentional – just like the motive behind the original May 7 DEP press release.
That error was fed to the reporter, and it was designed to avoid:
1) asking why DEP was warning of standing water during a dry period and warning of mosquitos and WNV far earlier than typical “later summer”
(of course, a dry period could not be related to climate change!. Despite strong science and observations that demonstrate we are now experiencing climate change,, the “objective” and “professional” media can never “speculate” about that, but speculation – based on false information no less! – about this summer’s mosquito populations and risks from West Nile Virus are legitimate issues to engage in HIGHLY speculative bullshit.)
2) to prevent coverage of the dry spring issue and therby open the can or worms of DEP’s longstanding failure to Update the Water Supply Master Plan.
I’ve seen this happen so many times that this is no conspiracy theory – its news management by the spinmeisters at DEP press office.
(today’s hyped Star Ledger cover story – “A Date with Fate” – on Delaware Bayshore/red knot is another example of news management- and that story is running on the day before an Assembly Committee will consider a major controversial Coastal Commission bill!
Prediction: that Assembly Committee hearing will be ignored by the Ledger, or at best a very short story will get buried. Tomorrow’s big coastal story will be the Supreme Court hearing on dune leases – another painful irony, for sure.)