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I'm a geek working as a distance learning specialist for a large corporation.

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March 2013
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Fact checking the easy stuff

So our water company had a break in at one of their tanks recently and while they’re checking to make sure the water hasn’t been contaminated, they’ve issued a “Do Not Consume” warning. The meat of the official warning, as found on the water company web site, is this:

DO NOT DRINK THE WATER UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Customers are asked to not use the water for drinking, cooking, food preparation, oral hygiene or providing to pets until further notice. Throw away ice cubes if made with tap water after 3:30pm on March 13. The water can be used for sanitary purposes such as bathing and washing. If you have specific health concerns, you may wish to consult your doctor.

Locally, this is kind of a big deal, even if it is just precautionary. So I’m checking out the information about this stuff on two local news stations last night. Both of them screwed it up.

Were the screw-ups important? Depends how you look at it. But come on… this is a pretty easy one to get right.

On the one station, their mistake was on their web site. As these are usually transcriptions of what they say on air it’s possible they said it that way as well. The mistake was that they instructed people to throw away their ice if it was made before 3:30pm. That’s backwards, and if there actually is contamination and people are too stupid to think for themselves, it’s dangerous. Even so, I can see how someone typing this up might have switched the word accidentally – just bad proofreading. Still it should get fixed when people point it out (as I did in the comments section). And it would have been pretty easy, and more accurate, to just copy/paste the same paragraph I did above anyway.

On the other station, the anchors said on-air at 11pm (well after the warning, and plenty of time to research something this simple) that you can’t even use the water to bathe or wash clothes. They emphasized it, and it’s patently opposite what the warning states. During the show I posted a correction on their Facebook page and they acknowledged the mistake there. No on-air correction, but they’ve got a timed show to run, so whatever. What annoyed me was that they ran a brand new report this morning and re-stated the same mistake.

Now I get that they might want to be leaning on the more conservative side – it’s possible to accidentally ingest the water while showering, after all – so I wouldn’t be upset if they stated it more as commentary than as official news. But to repeatedly state something completely the opposite of something clearly stated in the official warning just seems wrong. Do it once, it’s a possibly innocent mistake. Keep doing it after you’ve been corrected? That’s either on purpose or poor journalism.

Either way, it bugs me. If they’re getting something this simple wrong, why should I trust they’re getting bigger stuff right?

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2 comments to Fact checking the easy stuff

  • “Why should I trust they’re getting bigger stuff right?”

    Ahh, there’s the problem. They probably aren’t!

    On many occasions, I think the main problem is that they report too soon before the facts are fully known even if they DID try to find out (this often happens with disasters and other breaking news), in other cases it’s shoddy reporting or poor fact checking or general ineptitude. And there are probably the odd one or two malicious misleading efforts.

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    I think you nailed it. I can’t argue with you.

    Reply to this comment

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