Friday, July 23, 2010

The Express Sucks
A continuing series
Looking back, I'm surprised I've never posted about this specifically before. But the Express, a publication of the Washington Post and one of the two major free commuter dailies in the DC area, really sucks. Crappy, vapid, juvenile, sensationalist, drive-by reporting that starts with Broderish centrism and is always trying to lurch even further right like a kid with a learning disability who just has to be told every 90 seconds not to piss in the class fishtank. I never thought highly of the paper, but it definitely got even worse after a redesign around December 2009. I know I've complained about it in venues other than this, and I might look for links later.

So, today's example: the cover story is titled "Are you a hippy-crite?", and it's about how people drive SUVs to Whole Foods. OK, liberals are hypocrites, we get it, there's nothing individuals can do to help energy or environmental issues. Fine. The article is mostly about the psychological concept of "moral license", but doesn't have any actual point to make other than the pun on the front page. The writer found someone in a Whole Foods parking lot with an SUV who was dumb enough to talk to a reporter from the Express, and linked up three or four other the-perfect-should-be-the-enemy-of-the-good anecdotes, and given what the writer (or editor, maybe this is a good writer with a horrible editor, who knows) made of it, the paper could have been guilty here of nothing worse than argument by anecdote.

However, apparently Express policy is to maximize hack journalism, because they also found a way to throw innumeracy in there. See here, page 7. One of the two graphic elements of this story (all the graphics combined take up more space than the text) made the mistake of offering numbers, which, unfortunately for hacks, are quantifiable. According to the article, people who used high-efficiency washers report running loads of laundry 6 percent more often, and 33 percent of people who went through a green-consulting process reported seeing no improvement in their electic bills. Therefore, those systems are useless and people who say they want to make a difference in their energy consumption are unserious about it.

Wait, what the hell? As for the first, I admit I'm cheating because unlike whoever designed the graphic I'm doing some cursory research to check out whether my intuition is accurate, but 6 percent more loads of laundry is trivial. High-efficiency washing machines use 50 to 60 percent less energy than others. (The "high-efficiency" part is actually talking about water rather than energy directly, but using less water means using less energy to heat the water so it also has energy savings.) So if an old-fashioned washing machine uses twice the energy of a newer one, but people with newer washing machines run loads 6 percent more often, then the overall savings are... gets out calculator... tak tak tak... between 36 and 47 percent. I think. Could be off. But still, that's a huge reduction. People would have to run loads of laundry (not even getting out the calculator for this part, forgive me) TWICE as often to completely negate the benefit of high-energy washing machines. So what problem is the article reporting on, again?

And as for the second example, I'm not even bothering to get out the calculator for it. Do the math mentally with me: if 33 percent of people saw no reduction in bill from greening their home, than how many people saw a reduction? That's right: 67 percent. A two out of three success rate. Apparently that is too complicated for both the graphic designer and the editor of the Express to figure out.