Monday, January 13, 2014

Driving good news

When I suggested that bloggers focus on good news or the positive aspects of an otherwise negative story, I had an example of the latter in mind: The annual report on deaths on New Zealand roads over the Christmas/New Year holiday period. Today, I’m going to tell you why the news is far better than the newsmedia would have us believe, and why that good news was buried.

The charts above show official statistics on the number of road deaths in New Zealand. The upper one shows the total number of road deaths from 1921 to 2013. The lower chart shows that road death data from 1936 to 2013, but shows that data as a percentage of deaths per 100,000 population and per 10,000 vehicles (population and vehicle data wasn’t complete prior to 1936). What we can easily see from both charts is that the death rate has been trending downward since about 1990.

So, that’s good news, no doubt about it. But the New Zealand Herald headlined their story, “Road toll higher than 2012”. This was true: Seven people died in the period from Christmas Eve to January 3 in 2013/14—up ONE from the same period in 2012/13. We can all agree that even one death from a traffic accident is one too many, but does that small increase actually deserve negative reporting?

Clearly the Herald was aware that this is low, and clarified a bit: “Last year's six deaths over the period was the lowest number on record since 1956/57.” That’s better, but still doesn’t provide the full context.

When we look at the entire month of December 2013, it turns out that there were 16 fewer deaths than in December 2012, and December 2013 had 14 fewer deaths than the average December road toll for the last five years—and the lowest December road toll on record since monthly records begin in 1965.

There’s even more good news: For the 12 months that ended in December 2013, there were 54 fewer people who died on New Zealand roads than in the 12 months to December 2012 (source is at the same link in the previous paragraph).

So, that one more holiday period death in 2013/14 than in 2012/13 is bad, but in context—lowest December road toll on record, a continual decline in road deaths over time, including fewer road deaths in 2013 than 2012—we see that things are actually getting better all the time and fewer people overall are dying on New Zealand roads. This is pretty great news, actually—why isn’t that the story being reported?

Two reasons: First, the newsmedia dwells on negative news and conflict. Immediately after the Herald’s tiny bit of context for the holiday statistics, they said this: “The increase in fatalities has prompted top officials to call for greater driver responsibility on the roads—however one organisation has also hit out at tough anti-speeding campaigns on roads.”

That assertion wasn’t actually supported by the quotes in the article. The source they quoted actually said that focusing on speed alone wasn’t enough, because, he said, most deaths occur below the posted speed limit. He also said that even those that are speed-related often have other factors, all of which is true.

The other reason the newsmedia highlighted the bad news is that the NZ Police highlighted the bad news, in part because it advances their interests to do so.

The police reduced the tolerance (how much above the speed limit one can drive before getting a ticket) from 10 km/h to 4 km/h for two months from December 1. However, since they began keeping records back in 1997, the mean open road speed has been declining (from 102 km/h in 1997 to 95.6 in 2012). Only about 25% of divers exceed the open road speed limit of 100 km/h, and many of them would surely be within the 4 km/h tolerance.

So, if the police want to make the lower tolerance permanent, they have a problem: If road deaths are trending downward—and they are—and if speed is not the sole factor in most road deaths—and it’s not—then how can they convince people to support a low speed tolerance? One way is to highlight bad news, and that appears to be working. A recent NZ Herald DigiPoll claims that a majority of New Zealanders back a permanent 4 km/h tolerance.

So, what we have is classic situation in which good news is hidden behind bad news: The newsmedia reports government statistics largely uncritically, stirs in a dash of conflict, leaving a government agency and politicians free to use the worst data to sell their preferred action to the public—people who, unless they go and look at the statistics themselves, probably have no idea that things are far better than the newsmedia, the government or politicians claim.

If all this sounds overly cynical, then it’s important to add that the real cynics are convinced that the whole point of the lower tolerance is to raise revenue through tickets. However, I’ve seen no evidence to back that contention.

This whole thing is a good example of why I issued the challenge to look behind the news, to search out the positive in what is often unfairly or incorrectly negative news reporting. We deserve to know the whole story, not just what government or political spin meisters want us to know.

Despite what they all say, the real news here is that road deaths in New Zealand are declining, and that’s great news, indeed.

Any bloggers who participated in this experiment are welcome to leave a link in the comments. Next week, I won’t explain all the detail as to why good news is being overlooked, instead I’ll just focus on some good news of some sort—I just don’t know what yet.


rogerogreen said...

I pretty much ran out of time - this is why I write ahead in my own blog - but here's SOMETHING: http://blog.timesunion.com/rogergreen/good-news-from-bad-1/3984/

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I'll give you special dispensation…