Since I joined CityBeat two years ago, I’ve read and watched a lot of bad attempts at investigative journalism. But on Feb. 24, WCPO genuinely surprised me with the worst piece of reporting, journalism or whatever one wants to call what I saw: a so-called “investigation” into deaths related to streetcars.
There is just so much wrong with the report. The statistics themselves show the story completely lacks news relevance. The reporters failed to contact any streetcar supporters, who are some of the most accessible sources in local journalism. And the story failed to identify one of its main sources as a member of the virulently anti-streetcar Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
Putting aside most of these errors in the reporting process, I want to focus on two statistics provided in the story. According to WCPO’s sources, more than 300 people have died in light rail accidents nationwide since 1995, but — and this is crucial — 96 percent of rail-related deaths were not caused by the people riding in the streetcar or train.
To put the numbers another way, roughly 16 people die each year in light rail accidents, and approximately 0.6 of those deaths are actually caused by someone, including the driver, in the train or streetcar.
In other words, WCPO is essentially trumpeting concerns about less than one nationwide death each year.
That’s not to dismiss the tragedy of any death. But when allocating limited resources in a newsroom, priorities have to be set. And in this case, there are dozens of deadlier examples that can and should be investigated. Through minutes of research, I found some of the deadly issues WCPO could have looked into instead of irresponsibly throwing around statistics about streetcars.
• Nearly 30,000 people died in car crashes across the nation in 2011, according to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That number is more than 1,800 times higher than the amount of deaths caused by light rail accidents each year since 1995. Considering WCPO’s report focused on vehicle-related deaths, the total fatalities from car crashes are surely a more relevant.
• More than 31,000 people died nationwide from gun-related injuries in 2010, according to the National Vital Statistics Reports. That number is more than 1,900 higher than the amount of deaths caused each year by light rail accidents. Especially with recent developments in the local, state and national stage regarding gun deaths, rights and regulations, such an in-depth story should essentially write itself.
• More than 38,000 people died from drug overdoses across the country in 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 30,000 of those deaths were unintentional, the agency claims. That means unintentional overdose deaths were more than 1,800 times higher than light rail deaths, and the intentional deaths were more than 500 times higher. Again, that’s surely more newsworthy.
• Roughly 390 children aged 0-14 die in the United States each year from drowning in a pool or spa, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. That number excludes the adult population, and it’s still more than 20 times higher than annual deaths caused by light rail accidents. The statistic risks inspiring a COAST-led campaign to ban pools across the city, but the number is definitely more newsworthy than deaths caused by light rail.
• At least 21 died nationwide to the polar vortex, according to The Associated Press. That’s just one weather event spanning a couple weeks, yet it’s already deadlier than light rail deaths throughout an entire year. Considering some of the deaths were caused by homelessness, there’s certainly a relevant news angle for a city that barely funds its winter shelter each year.
There are literally dozens more examples scattered through the Internet, and they’re all easily accessible through a few minutes of Google.
What WCPO’s story really speaks to is the obsessive anti-streetcar attitudes perpetuated by opponents and mainstream media outlets to capitalize on people’s misgivings of the project.
There are legitimate reasons to be wary of the project. Maybe the operating costs are too high. Maybe the capital expenses could go to a better project. Maybe ridership numbers will disappoint.
But deaths caused by streetcars? That should not be treated as a legitimate threat to the public. The fact even one news source gave so much attention and hype to such a trivial issue only speaks to the sheer desperation local reporters must feel in their attempts to attract TV ratings and Internet traffic. Readers and viewers should expect and demand better.