November 30, 2010

Junk journalism: media flaming fear and irrationality

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:44 pm

The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz recently took the media to task for spending too much time covering the TSA’s new procedures, referring to it as a “‘junk’ journalism epidemic.”

I’ve about had it with media types who insist on turning this into a junk story.

A government agency with more than a $7 billon budget that touches 2 million people a day (now sometimes literally) with little accountability? That’s exactly the kind of story that the media should be focused on.

Unfortunately, Howie is right in that while they’ve stayed on the story, the handling has largely been junk.

There are two biases in today’s media: laziness and sensationalism. They lazily do the standup at the airport with the grandma who says she’s happy to fly naked if it makes her safer. (Portland TV stations sent their reporters to Portland International Airport, even though the new procedures aren’t in place there.) They don’t bother to question whether it actually makes her safer.

They lazily interview John Pistole with his pat answers that admonish people that it’s all for their own good and to remember 9/11. Deference to official sources is just as strong as it was during the lead up to the Iraq war. Tough questions are few and far between. Official statements are treated as gospel. Even in Howie’s piece, he quotes Pistole as saying “Very few people actually get the pat-down at all … it’s a very, very small number.” That “very, very small number” is about 60,000 people a day.

They also interview security consultants, who have either worked for these same agencies or make their money by working for the companies that make the scanners or both. Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s company worked on behalf of Rapiscan, one of the two suppliers of the devices.

They lazily quote polls from other news organizations without any understanding of what the poll asked or what the answer meant. The widely quoted CBS News poll was garbage.

For the most part, they don’t ask about whether the new procedures are effective or whether they can be worked around. They can — just insert the explosives into the rectum or vagina. That’s right, we have government employees fondling law-abiding citizens without cause, even though a terrorist can easily work around it. Even the companies that make the new imaging devices are uncertain whether they would have detected the underwear bomber.

They don’t bother to ask about all of the risks the TSA ignores while it puts on a show at the security checkpoint.

There’s also a bias to sensationalize. Some people are afraid to fly as it. The bogeyman of the Muslim terrorist plays well. We fear dying in a plane bombing because incidents that involve aircraft get a disproportionate amount of media attention. The media have a financial incentive to sensationalize: scared people watch TV to hear the “experts” talk about how to stay safe.

What the media don’t talk about is that flying is incredibly safe. 2 million people a day fly in the U.S. That’s more than 700 million people a year. In the last 9 years, there have been:

  • More than 300,000 deaths in car crashes.
  • More than 130,000 people murdered.
  • Exactly zero fatalities from aviation terrorism in the U.S.  6.6 billion passengers and zero fatalities.

Everything we do in life has a risk to it. Taking a shower, walking down the street, going to the mall.

I travel between 50,000 and 100,000 miles a year most years. I also travel on larger planes and to and from foreign countries. My risk of dying in a terrorism-related plane crash is much greater than that of the average American. (16% of Americans have never flown; another 37% fly less than once a year.) But I’m not worried because I know the risk is so unbelievably tiny it’s not worth worrying about. The TSA’s new procedures don’t reduce that already insignificant risk.

The Cinnabon at the airport food court is a bigger threat to your health and well being than a terrorist is. And, by the way, what the TSA doesn’t want you to know is that the guy working behind the counter at the Cinnabon didn’t have to go through security.

About these ads

November 21, 2010

Asking meaningless questions: CBS’ faulty poll on TSA screening

Filed under: metrics, research, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:42 am
Daryl Cagle, MSNBC cartoonist

Daryl Cagle, MSNBC cartoonist

In defending its actions in screening passengers, the TSA continually points to a CBS News Poll which claims that 80% of Americans support the scan. What does that really mean?

Let’s take a look at the actual question that was asked:

Some airports are now using “full-body” digital x-ray machines to electronically screen passengers in airport security lines. Do you think these new x-ray machines should or should not be used at airports?

Nowhere in the question is the technology explained. No mention of the fact that the scanners see through clothing and generate images that provide anatomical detail. No mention that the efficacy of the scanners has been questioned by security experts. No mention of the potential health effects of the x-rays. The frame of reference that most people have for x-rays is what they see at the doctor’s office when they break a bone. People are being asked a question without the background to understand what it really means.

The poll also surveyed the general population. It does not reflect the population that actually flies, even sporadically. (Much less those who are on planes several times a month.) According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics survey data, only about 40% of the population had taken even one trip by commercial aircraft in the previous 12 months.

For this poll to really have meaning, the question should be asked of people who are affected and who understand what is being asked. Question wording has a huge impact on results. Most journalists don’t bother to look at what was actually asked before making assumptions about what the results say.

CBS might want to consider this variation for their next poll:

Some airports are using enhanced screening techniques in airport security lines. Do you think 13-year-old children should or should not have their genitals touched by government agents without probable cause?

I’d bet that the results are the mirror opposite.

Update: ABC News did its own poll on TSA screening that addressed both of the issues above (wording bias and sample bias). It’s results were very different.

Specifically, ABC asked:

The Transportation Security Administration is increasing its use of so-called ‘full-body’ digital x-ray machines to screen passengers in airport security lines. (Supporters say these machines improve the ability to spot hidden weapons and explosives, and reduce the need for physical searches.) (Opponents say these machines invade privacy by producing x-ray images of a passenger’s naked body that security officials can see, and don’t provide enough added security to justify this.) Which comes closer to your own view – do you support or oppose using these scanners in airport security lines?

Among people who fly at least once a year, 58% support the machines and 37% oppose. Opposition rises among people who fly more frequently, although that sample size was small.

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Create a free website or blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers

%d bloggers like this: