One way newspapers indemnify themselves against charges that they’ve published a bogus trend story is by constructing ledes that essentially say this isn’t a trend story because it’s been going on for a long time.
The Los Angeles Times follows this course in Thursday’s (Oct. 11) Page One story “Street racing takes on a deadly new form.” The triple-bylined piece acknowledges at its start that young Los Angelinos were street racing well before the hot-rod fad of the 1950s. It concedes that despite spending “decades” trying to stop the racers, police are still “struggling to fight the practice.”
But then, as the piece starts piling up body-count anecdotes—reporting that “nearly 100 people die each year in California as a result of illegal street racing”—it gently morphs into an unsubstantiated trend story about the changing face of street racing:
Detectives said they are increasingly seeing a particularly dangerous form of racing, called “cutting the gap”—impromptu speed contests in which racers weave in and out of traffic.
Note the imprecision of the detectives’ testimony. If this dangerous form of racing is increasing, what’s the measure? Don’t look for it in the story. Also, if “nearly 100 people die each year in California as a result of illegal street racing,” is the number going up or down? Again, don’t look for it in the story.
After recounting another racing anecdote—one that took the life of Reyna De Leon—the story returns to its “increasingly” theme. The reporters write:
The type of race that killed De Leon is becoming increasingly common, police said.
Again, the piece provides no numbers, just the opinion of unnamed “police.”
Cops can be terrific sources—as long as you don’t care whether they know what they’re talking about. This lesson seems to be lost on the Los Angeles Times. If the observation that types of racing are increasing is good enough to bear repeating, surely some sort of documentation exists to support it. Right?
The only surefire way to prove a trend’s genuineness is to measure progress over time. The Times story sort of gets that, stating:
In the past, most drag racers waited until night when traffic cleared up to stage their races, contacting each other on cellphones and Internet message boards to set dates and times for the illegal contests.Now, [LAPD Det. David] Millan and others said, a growing number of daredevils are embracing the thrill of rush-hour racing, leading to broad-daylight deaths of innocent bystanders.
But “In the past” isn’t a very precise interval. From context we can assume that the Times is referring to a time when young racers had access to cell phones and Internet message boards, which could be a single week last month or the two years between 1995 and 1998. Also note the nebulous observation sourced to Det. Millan and “others” that “a growing number of daredevils are embracing the thrill of rush-hour racing.” If numbers are really growing, a theme the piece returns to for the third time, why not provide numbers? Perhaps because the numbers don’t exist?
When Times reporters finally deliver the hard, useful numbers the story cries out for, they write:
From 2000 through 2006, drivers pleaded guilty to illegal speed contests in about 50,000 cases, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Last year, about 6,100 drivers pleaded guilty to drag racing, according to the DMV.
By applying arithmetic to these numbers we learn that, on average, about 7,142 street racing guilty pleas were entered yearly over seven years. But only 6,100 guilty pleas were entered last year. One could argue by this crude measure that statewide racing is downor holding steady!
Why, then, does the paper tilt the story in the other direction? If I, too, can be allowed to present anecdote as proof, it may be that the intense coverage of Los Angeles street racing provided by local TV news raises the perceptions that racing is growing when it really isn’t. Gentlemen and ladies of the Los Angeles Times, please restart your engines.
Thanks to reader William Murray, who alerted me to the article and suggested the arithmetic. Send bogus trend stories and other anecdotal evidence to slate.pressbox@gmail. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)