COMMENT & ANALYSES: “…he said in response to a hypothetical policy question” — that was the line buried at the end of the forth paragraph of an Irish Times article on Monday. The article had the headline of “Dublin council official calls for ban on parents driving children to school” and opening paragraph of: “Parents should be legally prohibited from driving their children to school, a senior Dublin City Council official has told a clean air conference.”
The reaction online and in follow up coverage by other outlets was strong, to say the least. Newspapers cannot generally be responsible for secondary coverage of their stories, but they can when the stories are framed in such a misleading way.
We are told the context of the hypothetical question was a “if you were dictator for a day” type of question. It should never make into a newspaper as if it was a serious suggestion. Not a serious newspaper anyway. If you’re responding to a hypothetical question, you’re not “calling” for something. The headline and opening paragraph combined are highly misleading.
Even if people read as far as the reference to the hypothetical question, the headline and opening paragraph have left their mark.
The quote was from Brendan O’Brien, the head of the transport section of Dublin City Council. Even when O’Brian was on RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime show and explained that it was a hypothetical question, the presenter and another guest continued mainly as if it was a real suggestion.
In The Irish Times article, it’s only in the 9th paragraph where we get told of the point of the event which the journalist was covering — Dublin is the first Irish city to agree to aim to meet the Health Organisation air quality guidelines by 2030.
Thetimes.co.uk offers an example of a different way of covering the same story: ‘Air quality drive could hand Dublin roads to green transport’. But that headline is clearly not as click friendly.
Some staff of the newspaper have in the past taken criticism badly, mainly evident by their reaction on Twitter. But we have to say that this is not a one-off in how The Irish Times covers sustainable transport and related issues.
Relevant to the subject at hand, last year, we covered how The Irish Times was particularly poor on air quality and its link with cars — it called for more monitoring when EPA data shows there’s a large problem linked with motor traffic, and it’s well beyond time for action.
Why does this matter? Because it gets people’s back up for no reason when there is no real call for what the headline claims there is. It’s debases the conversion on what to do when Dublin is starting to seriously look at issues as what happens around the school gates and how to provide alternatives.
Providing alternatives is hardly every a straight forward thing was wished by a wide range of people (ie the concept a city can wait until, for example, there’s underground metro routes cross-crossing it’s suburbs), so, muddying the waters more with misleading information hinders change.