5/31/2005

Sloppy reporting, part II

Don't worry, this one will be significantly shorter than Part I. This paragraph is brought to you by Bay City News:

When researching for an editorial at the San Jose
Mercury News, Diamond compiled a stack of articles 10
inches high on pit bull attacks that span a decade,
she wrote in a recent opinion column.

She may have actually written that, but that doesn't make it true. A single ream of printer paper sits about two inches high, and that's 500 pages. Even if we take into account for a stack of paper that's been used and printed being bigger than if it was freshly packed into a ream, 10 inches would still account for well over 1,000 sheets of paper. The statement that an editorial writer would compile a collection of that many articles as research for a single assignment, on a topic on which there is near-universal agreement (pit bulls can be dangerous animals), is absurd on its face.

Kudos to the reporter for using evocative imagery. I can see that stack of articles in my mind's eye. Next time, however, I recommend using information that is actually true.

5/27/2005

And they give me shit for having an attitude problem.

You know what's rad? How about when you message your editor at 2 p.m. and say you might have another story today, and he says the paper desperately needs another front-page story, so you bust your ass to get it done by 5:30, tracking down state officials and interviewing them on their cell phones as they sit on an airplane that is minutes from departing, and then they run your story on page 6 so some bullshit about Schwarzenegger saying the same thing he always says can be on the front page.

That's what's rad.

5/18/2005

CSI's lost episode

Scene one. A WOMAN is doing something. She is alive.

Scene two. The next day. Crime Scene Investigators are taking pictures of the WOMAN's dead body with Nikon F5 digital cameras.


GRISSOM
What happened to her?

COP 1
Vaguely sex-related comment.

GRISSOM
Sexual pun.

WILLOW
Look at this.

GRISSOM squats to look at a tiny bit of evidence that WILLOW could not possibly have seen by simply glancing at the ground.

GRISSOM
It's a pubic hair. We seem to find them at every crime scene.

WILLOW
I'll run a whole of bunch of tests on it. DNA and some random acronyms.

GRISSOM stands up.

COP 2
We found her like this.

COP 1
I think that's an entry wound.

GRISSOM
Leave the investigation to us, you dumbass cops.

COP 2 spills coffee on himself. GRISSOM raises one eyebrow quizzically.

Scene three. Inside of CSI's sleek, ultramodern office. STOKES flexes his muscles while looking at himself in the mirror.


LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING
Hey, we got a seemingly random death for the subplot that will turn out to be extremely complicated.

STOKES
The killer will be someone we don't suspect at first. Let's go have a look.

Scene four. Inside the lab.

DOCTOR
Medical terms like amelogenin and erythema.

WILLOW
What about other jargon terms?

DOCTOR
Technical explanation.

WILLOW
So her death was vaguely sex-related.

DOCTOR
Another sexual pun.

GRISSOM raises one eyebrow quizzically.

Commercial for GMC trucks.

Scene Five. GRISSOM and SIDLE exit a GMC Yukon Denali and knock on a door.


MAN
Yes?

GRISSOM
Are you some guy?

MAN
Yes. What's this all about?

SIDLE
We're CSI. We need to talk to you about WOMAN.

MAN
Are you detectives?

GRISSOM
Despite the fact that detectives usually perform the actual investigation, our TV show has conflated the role of detective and forensics investigator.

SIDLE
Tell us about WOMAN.

MAN
Well, it's complicated. We were acquaintances who may or may not have had sex.

GRISSOM
Did you have sex with her?

MAN
Yes -- sexual pun -- but I didn't kill her.

SIDLE swabs the inside of the man's mouth with a Q-tip.

MAN
I know someone else you should talk to about the case. Here's his cell phone number and home address, and he will conveniently be there for you to interview.

Scene six. STOKES and LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING are at a crime scene. STOKES waves an ultraviolet light everywhere.

LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING
Find anything?

STOKES
Lists several kinds of body fluids.

COP 3
Maybe DNA is involved.

LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING
Shut up.

STOKES
Cops are so dumb. Hey, look at this.

Close up of victim's fingernails.

LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING
Something to do with the victim's fingernails.

STOKES
Death-related pun.

LIEUTENANT OR SOMETHING
What a way to go.

Scene seven. CAPTAIN sits across a table from MAN 2.

CAPTAIN
Just for clarity's sake, you're the guy the first guy referred us to.

MAN 2
Yeah, I knew her. We might have had sex.

CAPTAIN
Flippant comment about you killing her.

MAN 2
Hey, it wasn't like that.

CAPTAIN
Wasn't like what? You killing her? We found your DNA on her body.

MAN 2
I'm amazed at how quickly you are able to process DNA test results. Besides, that just means we had sex.

CAPTAIN
You're looking at murder one.

MAN 2
I have an alibi. You should interview her friend, who knows several people who have had sex with each other.

Scene eight. In the hallway of the CSI office. WILLOW walks around looking vaguely upset.

Scene nine. STOKES sits in a bar, drinking a bottle of Coors.


BARTENDER
Yeah, I saw the victim. He/she was really doing something.

STOKES
What do you mean?

BARTENDER
He or she had a lot of friends with him or her. If you know what I mean.

STOKES
Anything happen?

BARTENDER
One of the following: argument, fight, hookup.

STOKES
You know any of these other people?

BARTENDER
I will give you a few names, a handful of phone numbers, and the names of others who know them. Piecing the relationship together will waste about 10 minutes of viewers' time.

Scene 10. GRISSOM and WILLOW knock on another door.

MAN 4 opens the door. He is young and has slick hair.


MAN 4
Fake hip slang for "hello."

GRISSOM
We're CSI. What happened to WOMAN?

MAN 4
Well, I did have sex with her. Self-aggrandizing remark.

GRISSOM raises one eyebrow quizzically.

WILLOW
Can we look around?

MAN 4
Confident response. Smirk.

Inside, GRISSOM and WILLOW find microscopic items in the carpet, the bathroom sink drain, the crack in the wall behind the television, the lint compartment of his dryer, the gums between his dog's teeth. They also confiscate his scissors, boning knife, can opener, and paper clips.

Scene 11. In the interview room. STOKES talks with the last friend of the subplot victim that he was able to locate.


STOKES
So, what happened to him or her?

LAST FRIEND
I don't know.

STOKES
We found a bunch of evidence.

LAST FRIEND
Confident dismissal.

STOKES
We found your saliva mixed with semen on a beer bottle that had been left in the apartment of your other friend. You met him or her the night before, had oral sex, drank beer, went over to the victim's house, and spilled a bunch of evidence everywhere before killing him or her.

LAST FRIEND
I want a lawyer.

STOKES
Sarcastic comment to the effect that you are not a good friend after all.

Commercial break. Scenes from tomorrow's episode of "CSI: Some Other City."

Scene 12. The interview room. GRISSOM and BROWN face MAN 4.


BROWN
Funny how the only black man on the show is named "Brown."

GRISSOM
And the captain is named "Brass," as in high-ranking police official.

MAN 4
Why am I here? I told you I didn't kill WOMAN.

GRISSOM
We found a bunch of forensic evidence.

BROWN
We found her DNA mingled with your dog's saliva in the crack in the wall behind your TV set. That means your dog bit her and in frustration she kicked the wall.

GRISSOM
In a similarly complicated manner, we matched the microscopic cutting pattern of your scissors to a paper doll that she had in her apartment.

MAN 4
What about the drain in my bathroom sink, and the can opener?

BROWN
Her blood was in your sink, duh. The can opener was for me. I had tuna for lunch.

MAN 4
All that effort was kind of a waste. I admitted to my brother that I killed her. Did you even interview him? He also had sex with her. And me.

GRISSOM raises one eyebrow quizzically.

Scene 13. WILLOW sits in an office and acts like she has a headache.


GRISSOM
Everything all right?

WILLOW
Something to indicate that I'm under a lot of stress.

GRISSOM
Noncommittal reassurance.

An INTERNAL AFFAIRS INVESTIGATOR walks in.

INTERNAL AFFAIRS INVESTIGATOR
I'm investigating.

GRISSOM
Standoffish response.

INTERNAL AFFAIRS INVESTIGATOR
That kind of attitude won't help. I'm investigating.

He leaves. WILLOW sighs and rubs her temples. GRISSOM raises one eyebrow quizzically.

ANNOUNCER
Stay tuned for scenes from next week's episode of CSI.

Commercial for "Everybody has Forgotten Raymond."

ANNOUNCER
A murder has been committed. But there's a surprising twist. And you won't believe what happens next. It's all on the next episode of CSI.

5/11/2005

Sloppy Reporting

Let's take a look at a couple of paragraphs from a local newspaper that is not the newspaper I work for. The story is about grandparents raising their grandchildren because of deadbeat parents, high unemployment, etc. I made a couple of changes to disguise the location and spare the reporter embarassment in front of my six blog readers.


The new responsibilities bring financial, legal and emotional challenges for the families involved, experts say. In 2000, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census, a grandparent was responsible for raising grandchildren in nearly 40 percent of the 45,000 [county] households [that] are composed of grandparents living with one or more grandchild under 18.

In [another county], the same Census reported 19,737 grandparents were responsible for raising grandchildren in more than 54,000 households.


I don't know about you, but I'm lost already. First of all, the phrase "In 2000, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census ..." doesn't make sense. The most recent data doesn't refer to stuff that took place in 2000, unless we live in the year 2001. Last I checked, it's 2005. Would you say, "According to the most recent historical data, World War II ended in 1945"? Making matters worse, the article on the website was missing the word "that," which I inserted up above in order to make it a sentence rather than a fragment.

Poor syntax aside, the real problem here is the confusing use of census data. I use census data in a lot of stories, mostly because I think it contains information that you can't get elsewhere, and because it gives me a kick since a lot of reporters don't really know how to use that sort of data to their advantage. (OK, maybe I'm patting myself on the back. So what.) But you can't just throw around a bunch of numbers and expect it all to make sense.

The numbers are used inappropriately in several ways here. First, you have to stop and think to get your brain around what those numbers actually are, because it's an odd statistic to be using. It's the percentage of grandparents who live in a household with their grandchildren AND are responsible for raising those grandchildren. In other words, there are 45,000 households in the first county where grandparents live with their grandchildren, and in 18,000 of those homes, grandparents are also raising those grandchildren.

(By the way, this is far from the most abstruse thing you could get from the Census. They have tables with names like "Imputation of Age by Sex by Race by Poverty Status." As soon as your computer can show 6-dimensional graphics, the Census will take advantage of that.)

OK, so we figured that out. But after figuring out what is being said, we may or may not figure out the importance of what's being said, or of what's not being said. For example, we don't know how many grandparents that is, only how many households with grandparents and grandchildren. Is it one grandparent raising kids alone? Multiple grandparents? And how many grandchildren per family are we talking about? Two? Ten?

More importantly, where is the context? There are 45,000 homes in X county where grandparents live with grandchildren. How many homes are there in the county overall? Is this a large proportion of the overall population? Or is it just a small slice? And furthermore, the story asserts that grandparents raising grandchildren is a growing trend. Really? The Census is performed every 10 years. How does the data from 1990 compare to 2000? No inkling is given here.

Part of the problem is that "households" is an obscure measuring stick for most people. Most people could probably estimate the population of their city or county, but would be hard-pressed to guess the size of the housing stock -- especially since that's complicated by things like apartments, condominiums, group homes, and so on. So basically we've got a statistic that, by its very nature, doesn't mean anything to anyone.

A better statistic would have been how many grandparents in the county are taking care of grandchildren, expressed both as a raw number and a percentage of the population. Being more specific, we could see what percent of grandparents are responsible for raising grandchildren. Most importantly, we could include similar numbers from years past, to see if things are changing or just staying the same.

The reporter does make an effort to show that such data is not available from the 1990 Census, because the question about grandparents raising their grandchildren was asked for the first time in 2000. But the Current Population Survey from 1997 went after this info specifically. By my count, that's eight years before this article was published. One Census report from a year later describes itself thus: in "this paper, we use the newly released 1997 March Current Population Survey data in conjunction with data from past years to estimate how many grandparents maintain households for their grandchildren and how these numbers have changed since 1990."

Sounds like it would have been relevant to the story. Too bad that data wasn't included. Additionally, there are ancillary data that could be used from prior Censuses. For example, they did in fact gather info on how many grandchildren lived with grandparents in 1990 and in 2000. If that number and/or percentage increased, we'd have a stronger case for a trend.

Plus there was actually a lot of interesting data from the Census report on this topic! For example, 50 percent of grandparents under age 60 who lived with grandchildren were responsible for raising those kids. By comparison, only 31 percent of the grandparents over 60 in the same situation were responsible for raising the kids. It's also worth noting that the increasing trend may be tied to the fast growth of the Latino population in America, of whom 8.4 percent of adults over 30 are "coresident" with grandchildren. For white people -- whose population is static -- that number is just 2 percent. Perhaps changing demographics are the cause of this trend, rather than anything else. That would make an interesting story, I guess, if someone bothered to look at the data. What would also be interesting is the states where grandparents are used most acutely as primary caregivers. That is, for states like Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, the percentage of people over 30 who live with grandchildren is very low -- about one-half to one-third the national average -- but the percentage of those coresident grandparents who are primary caregivers is way above the national average. In other words, the only time Grandma lives with you in Wyoming is when she's taking care of you. Otherwise, she's kicked to the curb.

None of this is to disparage the reporter or the article too much. These were just two throwaway grafs in a story that focused more on the human story of grandparents who are raising their kids' kids. Study after focus group after readers' forum shows that newspaper readers want to hear stories, not data. But still. The data puts the story in context. Data is what helps you understand whether human stories matter. If I have a friend who drives 90 minutes each way to work, that's a sad story. If I know, through carefully collected data, that twice the number of people in my city drive more than an hour to work this year than did five years ago, then I'm on to something bigger than my friend's bummer of a situation. Right now, all I know from that story is that a couple of grandmothers in X County are raising their grandkids without any help from the parents. Which is sad but ultimately doesn't affect me.

5/03/2005

Adventures in Periodontal Disease; or, Floss. Right now. I mean it.

My first trip to the dentist in 4.5 years took place a couple months ago, where I learned that I have periodontal disease, a.k.a. gum disease. It is at an advanced stage, actually beyond gingivitis, which is what the announcer in those mouthwash commercials is always announcing in grave tones, as if it were some sort of life-ending event, like cancer. In reality, it means your gums are unhealthy. If you let it go too far, you may lose your teeth, so that's bad.

At the moment, I'm not in that bad shape. The reason things had deteriorated so much for me were twofold: first, not going to the dentist, and second, not flossing. Flossing is what keeps your gums happy, I'm told. Don't be fooled by the fact that it makes you bleed. Bleeding is apparently good. Maybe the flow of blood between your teeth washes out and kills all the bacteria or something. (That was a joke. Bleeding is known to be bad.)

Anyway, I started flossing again after I went to the dentist and they told me that I was rather young to be having gum disease. Sure, whatever, I'll just start flossing again. Then a couple weeks later I went back for SRP, scaling and root planing, which is where they pull your gums way back so they can scrape your teeth about six or eight centimeters below the gumline. OK, maybe not that far. I couldn't really tell, since they shot me up with about 500 CCs of novocaine. OK, maybe not that much. All I know is I could still feel the buzz about eight hours later.

What's most interesting is that they shot me up with Arestin, a very expensive antibiotic that is intended to help with the gum disease. This stuff cost me $35 for one milligram. Yes, that is $35 million per kilo, giving it a street value far outstripping heroin or cocaine. I don't think it gets you high, though. You'll have to ask my #18 molar about that one. Below, I am attempting to bogart the Shockwave animation from the Arestin website. We'll see if my h4cking skills are up to snuff.

UPDATE: okay, I suck. I can't get the flash animation to show up here. You can click the link and scroll down if you really want to see the syringe go under my gums and all that.

That was fun. I was supposed to not floss the two teeth they shot it next to, for two days anyway, so I didn't. Then I went back to normal flossing. Well, not normal. Normal would be not flossing. Which you should not do, and I'll tell you why.

Immediately after shooting me up with the stuff, the hygienist handed me a brochure on Arestin. It did not explain why it costs so much, but did explain why it is good for my gums or something. I won't bore you with the details. What it also made clear, though without any explanation, is that you should take care of your gums. You ever watch the commercials for things like Centrum Silver or Metamucil, and notice that the people in the commercial are way younger than the average Centrum or Metamucil user? You know, to keep up the charade that old people can still live active, fulfilling lives. Stuff like this:



In reality, most people that guy's age should be hooked up to a respirator. Not all, of course. My grandfather can probably still out-armwrestle me. But he can't drive really well. We need to start acting realistically toward our elderly, or else they will go around crashing their cars into farmers markets, killing a bunch of bystanders like that guy did in Santa Monica two years ago.

Anyway, why am I mentioning this? Well, what kind of photographs do you think they had on the Arestin brochure that I got at the dentist's office? You got it: a bunch of smiling 50-somethings, telling us it's OK to have periodontal disease. First of all, it's not OK, otherwise, the $35,000,000 treatment would never have been invented. Secondly, as I noted, pictures of youngish elderly folks are always used on products that are geared toward actual elderly folks, to make them feel younger. So this brochure basically told me that I have the gums of an 80-year-old.

Long story short, you should go floss. Like, right now.