Friday, March 25, 2016

Fellow journalists, we can do better

Dear fellow journalists,

We must do better.

Believe me, I understand your plight. Before I joined Land Line Magazine in November 2015, I worked at Kansas and Missouri newspapers for 15 years. So I know all too well about shrinking newsroom staffs combined with the increasing demand for quantity over quality and speed over accuracy.

Despite these difficulties, however, we must continue to strive for the highest standard.

We are the watchdogs, who are obligated to question everything so that we can provide the public a clear path to the truth.

A veteran editor once told me, “If your mom tells you she loves you, check it out.”

This is why it is so troubling for me to see that this message has been lost on a segment of the media.

Earlier this week, the University of Minnesota Morris released a study that said untreated sleep apnea leads to truck drivers being five times more at risk to have a crash.

Reporting the findings of the study itself is fine. But the problem is that many media outlets took the study’s news release and immediately recycled it as fact.

Here’s a sampling of some of the headlines regarding the study:
  • Huffington Post: Untreated sleep apnea makes truck drivers 5 times as likely to crash
  • CBS News: High crash risk in truck drivers who don’t treat this condition
  • Claims Journal: Crash risk higher for truckers who fail to follow sleep apnea treatment
  • News Everyday: Truck drivers who do not treat sleep apnea regularly have five times higher crash rate
  • Reuters: Crash risk more than triples for trucker with untreated apnea

Notice how none of those headlines use the words, “study claims.” As far as a reader scrolling through headlines on social media is concerned, the story was fact.

“Just another story about dangerous truckers,” I’m sure many thought. As if the study were true that the increase in crash risk would apply only to truckers and not the regular four-wheel folk.

Even if a person did click on the headline, the reporting often didn’t get much better. You must read three paragraphs, including a mention of the 2014 crash that involved actor Tracy Morgan, into the Huffington Post article before you learn a study was conducted.

The rest of the story touts the study, mentions how the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration are considering mandating sleep apnea treatment for truckers and railroad workers and then encourages readers to submit formal comments to the Department of Transportation.

“It’s really key for the public to weigh in on this,” one of the study’s authors told the Huffington Post. “Drowsy driving kills thousands of people every year. This is not just an issue for the trucking industry.”

Of course, the sentiment may be different if every U.S. resident with a big neck or belly were asked to plop down hundreds or thousands of dollars out of their own pocket for sleep apnea testing.

What’s really concerning about these readers’ potential comments is that they were likely generated from uninformed articles like this one.

Casual readers likely haven’t been told about the study’s limitations.

“However, if the No Adherence drivers have a higher crash risk than their controls (as is reported in the main text, section 3), it is not possible to conclude that this difference was caused by the effect of untreated obstructive sleep apnea,” the study’s web-supplement said. “A higher crash rate for the No Adherence drivers is consistent with there being such an effect. But other factors affecting crash risk may also vary in a non-random manner between the No Adherence drivers and other drivers, since these groups are self-selected.”

Casual readers most likely didn’t realize the study was a retrospective look at only the drivers of one company, Schneider National, and was not an overall snapshot of the industry.

Casual readers probably didn’t know that the study was divided by preventable and non-preventable accidents instead of fault and no fault, as well as the fact that Schneider was the one making the distinction.

Casual readers also weren’t made aware of potential conflicts of interest among several of the study’s authors.

And casual readers definitely weren’t offered a differing point of view.

“From the standpoint of objectivity or scientific analysis, this is still somebody’s opinion and largely the opinion of people who have an economic interest in expanding sleep disorder testing,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said. “If you’re going to take anything away from this effort at all, it’s going to be toward Schneider – nobody else. It was on their drivers in their system and all of the controls based on decisions made by them. It wasn’t illuminating in any way as far as extrapolating any kind of legitimate safety conclusions.”

In order for a reader to decide what is true and what is false, we must do our job as journalists to provide them the details from both sides of an issue.

Yes, we can and must do better.


A concerned colleague