The Journal Blows a Story

The editorial page is the glory of the Wall Street Journal, which often reports the facts better than its news pages.  Today the Journal’s news pages feature a truly pathetic example of conventional, follow-the-crowd journalism with a story entitled “Pittsburgh Tries to Clear the Air on Pollution.”  It has every trope of superficial environmental news reporting and is simply a lazy and tarted-up version of an activist group’s press release—in this case, a local enviro group called the “Breathe Project,” which upon reading between the lines of the story is simply a cat’s paw for the usual suspects such as the Sierra Club.  It is another vindication of an observation the Washington Post’s longtime media critic Howard Kurtz once acknowledged: “Some reporters say privately that it is difficult to write stories that debunk the conventional wisdom of environmental activists, whom the press treats more deferentially than industry spokesmen and other lobbyists.”

The piece is almost comical in the lengths it goes to try to persuade people that air pollution in Pittsburgh is a serious problem, which may require “more regulation,” naturally.  As the story reports,

More than half of the residents here aren’t aware that Pittsburgh’s air ranks among the worst in the nation, according to a survey commissioned by the Heinz Endowments. Only 15% of residents feel that a “lot of work” needs to be done on it.

“When you look back, we had problems when we had the mills,” said Richard Wilson, who said he does tai chi outside without worrying about the air. “The air in Pittsburgh is pretty good.”

Sentiments like that prompted Breathe to launch a $500,000 media campaign that includes ads on TV, in newspapers, on billboards, on the sides of buses and at the homes of the Steelers and Penguins.

One of the real howlers in this excerpt is what I call the “reverse Lake Woebegone Effect,” namely, that Pittsburgh’s air is among “the worst in the nation.”  Turns out the American Lung Association’s annual report on air pollution—a shoddy report I’ve repeatedly called “a smoldering stogie of misinformation”—always has local versions of a press release that say each metropolitan area suffers from “some of the worst air pollution” in the nation.  I did a Nexis search for the phrase “smog” and “some of the worst” a few years ago, and discovered the phrase in press coverage in dozens of American cities.  Of course, if everyone has about the same level (which is true for just about every place except the region that actually does have the highest air pollution levels—California), then no one has air that is notably “worse” than everybody else.  But it’s always good for the harum-scarum narrative that environmentalists and regulators can’t do without.

The Journal story is entirely typical of media malpractice for its complete absence of data.  Reporters ought to ask—but never do—what the underlying trend is, and how ambient conditions measure up against Clean Air Act standards.  Air pollution in Pittsburgh, like everywhere else in America, is declining, as a check of the EPA’s data would show.  Apparently this was too much trouble for the Journal reporter, Kris Maher, to do, even though the EPA now has a very user-friendly site where you can check both ozone levels and particle pollution levels on a monitor-by-monitor basis.  Pittsburgh currently meets the Clean Air Act standard for particulates (fine particulate pollution levels have declined 22 percent over the last decade), and is only slightly above the current very tight ozone standard.

This makes all the more comical this paragraph:

One example of Pittsburgh’s new focus as a tech hub is Google Inc.’s 200-worker office here. The employees work on online commerce and data storage, among other things, a company spokesman said. The office added 50 people in 2011, but the city’s air quality is a “big problem” when it comes to recruiting employees to work here, said Andrew Moore, a Google vice president and head of the operation.

“If we can’t offer [clean air and clean water] to employees we need to recruit to fill the jobs of the future, then we will lose them to those cities that do,” said Mr. Moore, who backs the Breathe Project.

Hmm.  How do ozone and particulate pollution levels compare between Pittsburgh and Google’s home office in Silicon Valley?  Google also has a large office in Atlanta—are air pollution levels in Atlanta also an impediment to recruiting workers?  Let’s look first at the data for fine particles (known as “PM2.5” in the trade).

Figure 1: Fine Particulate Levels in Pittsburgh and Atlanta

The story for ozone is a little more complicated, because there isn’t complete data for Sunnyvale (the closest EPA monitor to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View), but the figure below shows that Pittsburgh not only has a lower ozone level than Atlanta, but has been flirting with attainment of the 0.75 8-hour ozone standard for the last few years.  Sunnyvale has been in attainment of the ozone standard, but as you can see from the figure Pittsburgh is not notably worse than Sunnyvale on ozone either.

Figure 2: Ozone Levels in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Sunnyvale

Conclusion: the Journal reporter is a dupe.  The Google manager is a fool.

P.S. As my last witness, I offer Seymour Garte, professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh (someone the Journal ought to have called as an expert source on this story) who wrote a terrific book entitled Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet.  Prof. Garte relates the story of attending a professional conference in Europe, where he was struck by the data from a speaker showing steadily declining air pollution trends, being surprised by the data, and being even more surprised to hear the speaker say, “Everyone knows that air pollution levels are constantly decreasing everywhere.”  “I looked around the room,” Prof. Garte writes:

I was not the only nonexpert there.  Most of my other colleagues were also not atmospheric or air pollution specialists.  Later I asked one of them, a close friend, if he had known that air pollution levels were constantly decreasing throughout Europe and the United States on a yearly basis.  “I had no idea,” he said.  It certainly was news to me.  Even though I was a professor of environmental health and had been actively involved in many aspects of air pollution research for many years, that simple fact had somehow escaped me. . .  I had certainly never seen it published in the media.

Well, if you’re reading the Wall Street Journal in Pittsburgh today, you still aren’t getting an accurate account of the story.

Lastly, if you want to know more about all of this generally, see my Almanac of Environmental Trends website, or track down the book I wrote on this with Joel Schwartz, Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks.

 

Responses

Books to read from Power Line