Grist: Politico doesn’t get any facts wrong in its ‘normal, awful’ story on the EPA.

The EPA issued a draft rule on Nov. 26 to limit ozone pollution.

This is the headline on a story in Politico:

The Obama administration proposed a draft air pollution rule on Wednesday that business groups charge could be the costliest regulation of all time — setting up a test of how hard the president will fight for his environmental agenda against a newly strengthened GOP.

David Roberts, who covers energy and politics for Grist, noted two obvious points about this lede. “Right off the bat, here are the two narrative frames through which Washington understands air regulations: first, their alleged high cost, and second, as a move to the left, which everyone in D.C. knows is perilous almost by definition.”

Roberts proposes this alternate lede:

The Obama administration will issue a draft air pollution rule on Wednesday that health scientists say could prevent thousands of premature deaths a year — though Congressional Republicans are fighting hard to block the rule on behalf of industry groups.

What’s interesting about these ledes is that while they differ dramatically, they are both accurate. Nobody is distorting the facts. It’s a question of which facts a reporter might select that makes the difference.

Roberts does a nice job of exposing the unstated biases in the Politico story. He calls out Politico for writing that “greens say industry groups have been doomsaying environmental regulations for more than 40 years…” Of course “greens” say that, Roberts writes, because it’s true, “an actual, observable state of affairs in the world.” And he backs that up with five links.

It’s a very nice takedown, and one that should make reporters at Politico, and elsewhere, think more deeply about what it means to write a balanced story. Getting the facts right is only the beginning.

-Paul Raeburn


One Reply to “Grist: Politico doesn’t get any facts wrong in its ‘normal, awful’ story on the EPA.”

  1. Hank

    This is a good catch, but the real take home message is that there IS NO SUCH THING as ‘unbiased’ reporting.

    You can not report on even the most trivial event without somehow leaving out something that some interested person thinks is important; or covering something that some interested person thinks is irrelevant.

    And Roberts’s lede is full of unspecified assertions and vague attributions that make it sound like part of a snake-oil salesman’s spiel:

    “… health scientists

    WAIT: can you give me a name or at least a university affiliation? what is a ‘health scientist’ anyway: a doctor? an epidemiologist? a surgeon? a pharmacologist?

    “… say

    WAIT: where and when did they ‘say’ this? did they call you and tell you this? was it in a published paper? citation please?

    “…could prevent thousands of premature deaths a year…”

    That last is a minefield of vagaries: what does ‘prevent a death’ mean? What if changing standards cause someone to lose his job and the stress of that causes him to die prematurely at a young age from heart disease, even though he is actually breathing cleaner air?

    What’s a ‘premature’ death, anyway? Except for tragic accidents or deliberate murder, It’s almost an oxymoron.

    My point is not to trash Roberts or to say Paul does not raise a valid concern.

    My point is that EVERY report of EVERY event is slanted in some way or other, even if only in the sense that the reporter chooses to report on that particular event at all. And everyone who’s been around the journalistic block knows that NOT reporting on something is one of the most dangerous weapons in a journalist’s bag of tricks.

    I don’t even trust my OWN writing: when I revise a piece from a year or two ago, I often see things similar to the above that I blithely let go by the first time.

    We all need to very critically vet EVERYTHING we read or hear or read in the media, no matter WHAT the source: scholarly journals, books by recognized experts in their fields; ANY news source.

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