Same data, different headlines

I recently began using Google Reader (in case you had missed my multiple tweets about that!) to try to streamline my intake and processing of news and information. This move has had mixed results. I think it’s made my ability to process pieces of information more efficient, but that has lead me to believe that I’m invincible, so I promptly loaded Google Reader with over 2 dozen feeds, a quarter of which are extremely high volume (top 5 feeds produce 125 messages per day).

In trying to overcome this sudden flood of messages, I’ve been doing more headline skimming and less full-story reading than I used to (it’s actually pretty amazing and amusing how deep a picture of the days news I can get just from the nuances between CNN, Al Jazeera and New York Times headlines), but this too has lead to a new problem: headline-writers interpreting the news in their own ways. I mentioned this just earlier this evening but I’ve discovered another instance of it: two news stories about the same survey recently commissioned in regards to citizens feelings towards the California High Speed Rail project. Both articles gave the same exact nu8mbers from the survey, but one story was titled “High-speed rail supported by three-quarters of survey respondents” and the other “Voters: Slow Down the California High Speed Rail Project“.

Um, yeah, slow down the presses. How is it that the citizens of California overwhelming support the project, but want it to slow down? Well, it’s actually pretty straight forward, and I think both article writers were kooky and using the numbers to their advantage.
Here’s the survey data:
34% “said they would like to see the rail built as quickly as possible,”
42% “would like to see the high-speed trains built despite some concerns over cost and timing” and
13% “solidly oppose” the project.
I assume the remaining 11% were undecided (I was gonna make a joke about those remaining opinion-less 11%, but it’s apparently too late at night for my brain to produce such a wittyness).

The catch, as any sane person can plainly see, is that 42%. While I guess you can technically count them as supporters despite their concerns, I find it disingenuous to lump that group with the “support with no concerns” crowd in the headline of the story, especially when the resulting number is as large as 76%. On the other hand, show me in this survey where those 42% said they had all withdrawn their support, a logic leap that the other article seems to be making in order to make the claim that “a 19 percent drop from the percentage of voters that approved Proposition 1A” had occurred. Maybe in a perfect world nobody should vote for something they don’t 100% agree with, but this is not a perfect world, our government’s are all screwed up right now and their are bound to be issues with any huge government-run project. I find it really hard to believe that every single one of the 54% of voters in 2008 who voted for HSR had no reservations about it while still giving it the go-ahead. I would have, if I lived and voted in California.

So. The moral of the story is: beware of headline writers and always apply critical thinking to the news you read. Although maybe apply slightly less than me. Because 4 paragraphs at 4am about one survey in a state I don’t live in might be kind of overkill.

Oh well.