Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 24, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press

Journalistic standards have fallen dramatically in recent decades, perhaps nowhere worse than on radio talk shows. Rush Limbaugh has managed to get around any expectation that he be held accountable for lying on the air by claiming to be no more than an "entertainer." But readers still seem to expect to find accurate facts in their newspapers. Whether one disagrees with conclusions about what to do about those facts, facts remain facts. We trust newspaper journalists and their editors to verify the accuracy of information presented as fact.

Joe Soucheray plays a cranky old man on his radio program, "Garage Logic." Unfortunately, that cranky disregard for facts bleeds over into his work as a sports journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His utter disregard for facts in his recent column about the Vikings stadium's bird-killing glass should disqualify him from ever being taken seriously as a journalist. But how could the exceptionally sloppy "truthiness" have passed the Pioneer Press's editors? To have published such utter tripe is a shocking falling off from the standards that once earned this paper Pulitzer Prizes.

Mr. Soucheray starts his fatuous editorial with this:

We are being told, or asked to believe, by the Audubon Society, city council types and other defenders of birds that hundreds of millions of birds die each year after crashing into tall office buildings, apparently because they are confused by reflective glass. 
Hundreds of millions! Why, we should be wearing hip boots to work, if that is the case.
Audubon Minnesota and the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis have indeed reported the fact, verified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a great many researchers, that a huge number of birds are killed in collisions with windows in the United States every year. The figure 100 million is the most conservative estimate. The most recent research sets 500 million as a minimum, and the number may well be over a billion. A simple Google search would have provided plenty of solid evidence of the magnitude of window mortality, clear explanations of how the studies were performed, and even lots of photos of dead birds beneath windows right in downtown Minneapolis. The Vikings, the MSFA, and even Robert Zink, an ornithologist who claims the annual death total doesn't affect bird populations—none of them disputes the magnitude of bird deaths at windows. It's fact. Does that mean we really need to take out our hip boots to negotiate downtown Minneapolis?

Let's assume every one of the 500 million birds colliding with windows is a Giant Canada Goose, a maximum of 4 feet long with a 5 foot wingspan (most are only 43 inches long with a smaller wingspan). So being really generous, let's say each goose falls completely stretched out, taking up 20 square feet. 500 million of them would thus cover an area of about 10 billion square feet. What a huge area! Get those hip boots!

Oh, wait—10 billion square feet is just 359 square miles. The U.S. Census puts the total area of the Twin Cities metropolitan area at 6,364 square miles. So if 100 percent of the birds killed at windows throughout the United States were all the largest possible Giant Canada Geese, and every one of them crashed to the ground in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, there'd still be plenty of open space to walk between the carcasses, hip boots unnecessary.

And the truth is, Canada Geese virtually never hit windows. The birds that do mostly range in size from hummingbirds to robins. So let's assume they're all robins, 10 inches long with a 17-inch wingspan. 500 million of them would cover an area of 85 billion square inches, or 590 million square feet, or 21 square miles. St. Paul alone is 52 square miles, so there'd still be space to walk among all those dead birds. Of course, most of the dead birds are much tinier than robins--White-throated Sparrow, Ovenbird, and hummingbird size. The 170 square inches we're giving a robin could be covered by 3 Ovenbirds or White-throated Sparrows, or by 10 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Hyperbole seems to be the order of the day on talk radio, and Mr. Soucheray's "truthiness" is funny, right? For those who enjoy being entertained with falsehoods, this fits in with his radio rants. But his outright distortions of facts have no place in a legitimate newspaper. He's many decades past junior high math, and few journalists have a strong math background, but it took me five minutes using Wikipedia (to get the areas of the Twin Cities and St. Paul), an inexpensive bird field guide (to get the bird measurements) and a cheap calculator to work out the numbers. Is the St. Paul Pioneer Press that short on staff that they can't check such obvious errors? I've written columns and articles for the Wisconsin State-Journal and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune--there is no way either newspaper would have printed my work if I made up my facts out of whole cloth. How does Mr. Soucheray get a pass on meeting the most elementary of journalistic standards?

He goes on to say,

There is probably no more evidence for a bird not crashing into cloudy glass than there is evidence that hundreds of millions of birds die each year crashing into tall office buildings.
Again, he's questioning facts that are not in dispute by any of the interested parties in this issue; facts that are easily available with a Google search. The Vikings and the MSFA are not arguing that changing the glass won't reduce the kill. There are lots of studies affirming that the glass recommended by Audubon Minnesota and the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis really does kill fewer birds. If Mr. Soucheray wants to argue that the higher mortality is justified by the feeling of being outdoors that some fans and football players may enjoy during 8 home games a season, or that the building plans are a wondrously aesthetic choice, or that saving hundreds or thousands of birds a year is not worth a million dollars, that would be his opinion based on his analysis of the facts. But no--he found it easier to simply claim there's "probably no more evidence" without doing the most rudimentary Google search to find out that, in fact, there is abundant evidence.

He also didn't bother to look up "fritted" to understand the difference between fritted glass (clear glass with some patterning embedded) vs. "cloudy." Why let facts get in the way?

He blathered on:

The other morning I was reading the paper when I heard a thump. I knew exactly what it was. A little songbird crashed into one of my windows. It happens a few times a year, usually in the autumn, when I suppose the harsh, low-angle light of day is as problematic for a bird as it is for a golfer looking for his Titleist. In 25 years, I would say maybe a couple of dozen birds crashed into the house. Because I am very keen on urban wildlife, I pay attention to the numbers. Of the 26 or so birds that made contact with a window, I saw only two that required attention. And on both those occasions, I cupped the bird in my hand as the little musical notes played over the bird's head. He had been knocked out. 
But if you hold them until they come to, all you have to do is give them a good lift and they fly away. The thump the other morning? No bird. He didn't even get knocked out.
Yes, it has been many decades since Mr. Soucheray took junior high math if he thinks that something that happens "a few times every year" would occur "maybe a couple of dozen" times in 25 years, or that "a couple dozen" equals 26. And even assuming "a few times a year" means two, that would amount to 50 collisions in 25 years. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, in 25 years, just 26 birds have made contact with his windows. At least half of all bird collisions result in death--that's been well established by several researchers, and is not being disputed by anyone promoting the stadium design. Those "little headaches" Mr. Soucheray mentioned? He must not have read the news stories about how what seemed like a minor head injury from a skiing accident killed actress Natasha Richardson, nor about the horrible effects of "little headaches" on Vikings players--and they're wearing state-of-the-art protective helmets!

Let's say Mr. Soucheray's house is average, and let's say the one bird that he noticed hit his house this year really was the only bird to hit his windows, and that one a year is normal. The US has about 125 million houses. (Again, Mr. Soucheray, Google is your friend.) So we're back to that over-a-hundred-million-bird figure, which doesn't even take into account the many thousands of dead birds picked up at apartment buildings, high rises, and other glassy downtown office buildings.

I suspect that Mr. Soucheray would react to this critique of his column in the same way that some junior high students react to being called on their sloppy work, by rolling his eyes. But I wish at least one editor at the Pioneer Press expected staff writers to demonstrate even the most rudimentary research skills, and to know the difference between facts and lies or distortions. Without that, the paper has lost its integrity.