Top Three Problems with MPR’s @MNToday Tweet, and the Big Thing They Did Right

Let’s just get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: I’m an MPR sustaining member. I listen. I give. I heart MPR pretty hard.

I’m also a cycling advocate and a Spokeswoman for St. Paul Women on Bikes.

This post does not necessarily represent the views of WOB, streets.mn’s writers or board, or anyone else. All views and opinions are my own and subject to change without warning.

This morning, FiveThirtyEight  posted an excellent article about bike lanes and traffic patterns.  The headline was “Bike Lanes Don’t Cause Traffic Jams If You’re Smart About Where You Build Them.”

The article took a look at the influence of bike lanes on traffic in two cities, Minneapolis and New York City. By comparing traffic counts as well as referring to an informal test of trip time in NYC pre- and post-bike lane, the article concludes that vehicular congestion isn’t a necessary result of new bike infrastructure. It’s not an in-depth study, but it’s made a big splash.

Shortly after the article was published, @MNToday, a Twitter account managed by Minnesota Public Radio, tweeted the following:  “Minneapolis drivers see slight increase in congestion due to bike lanes.” This was followed by a link to the following infographic:

johnson-congestion-minneapolis-1

 

My first reaction to this tweet was “Oh boy, here we go again. Time to defend cyclists and bike lanes.” Yes, I’m biased in favor of bicycle transportation. I even wrote a Valentine to the St. Paul Bike Plan.

Imagine my surprise when I clicked through the infographic to the original article and discovered that it supported my belief that biking infrastructure generally does more good than harm in terms of traffic patterns and mode share.

@MNToday was sharing an article to which I reacted positively. So why was my initial reaction so negative? What did @MNToday do wrong?

I consider MPR to be a news organization, engaged in journalism, so let’s look at this through the lens of  the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

#1 – “Identify sources whenever feasible.”

When I clicked on the original tweet, it linked to the infographic shown above and not the whole article. It was not immediately apparent that this was not MPR’s own infographic or research.  The photo caption cites MNDot as the info source, implying, to some degree, that this is a local story. (This has since been corrected.)

#2 – “Make certain that headlines …. do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify of highlight incidents out of context.”

The tweet was lifted out of context and failed to preserve the intent of the article.

The closest thing I could find to a quote was this: “But if you start with roads that are well under capacity, you’ll only increase the congestion a little bit. And it may not even be noticeable.”

This quote might be part of the problem. Roads that are well under capacity are, by definition, not congested. But using another, more accurate term, such as “increase V/C a little bit,” just doesn’t have the same punch or clarity. Volume-to-capacity ratio isn’t a reader-friendly term.

#3 “Exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”

To your average citizen, congestion means crowded. It means sitting in traffic, inhaling exhaust fumes, and warding off road rage. The words “traffic” and “congestion” are not interchangeable. But even if they were, people far more knowledgeable about traffic engineering than I have pointed out that not all traffic increase is a bad thing.

Now here’s what @MNToday did right. They were accountable.

After the misleading tweet was brought to their attention, @MNToday “clarified news coverage.” They “invited dialogue with the public”. And they “admit[ed] their mistake and correct[ed] them promptly”.

A twitter account is not the same as long-form journalism. It’s not even the same as writing a headline. But MPR is seen as a reputable and highly valued news source in our community, and transportation is a hot-button topic  in the Twin Cities right now.

Current issues include the St. Paul Comprehensive Bike Plan draft, the SWLRT,  the BRT on Snelling,   and future plans for Ayd Mill, not to mention everybody’s spring favorite, potholes. Intentionally or not, @MNToday has a voice in that conversation.

I would like to thank MPR personally for opening the door this morning to a broader examination of both local transportation issues and the roles of context and accuracy in journalism and social media.

Thank you, and see you on the tweet-side!

Issues with the experimental methods and conclusions of the original article, such as not controlling for traffic increases on roads without bike lanes, identifying traffic types and mode share, throughput versus V/C, and road safety for all users are topics for a different post.

 


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7 Responses to Top Three Problems with MPR’s @MNToday Tweet, and the Big Thing They Did Right

  1. Bob Collisn April 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    What a shame there was no mention of the link that Mike Olson was tweeting to, and the headline therein.

    http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2014/04/study-bike-lanes-dont-cause-severe-congestion/

    Seriously, not even a mention?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 11, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

      For some reason, I too saw this (micro) post first Bob. Not sure how MPR works out its attribution / tweeting / sourcing chain of events, but in the age of the internet, the enduser experience can be different from how a news organization might intend. Little things (e.g. a tweet) can become amplified way beyond its original context. (Ask any politician or communications lackey who’s fallen victim to a TweetStorm.)

      Anyway, I thought the 538 piece was a bit lazy. It didn’t discuss anything beyond simple congestion metrics (not speed, safety, modeshare, etc.). That kind of frame just reinforces the myopic “LOS” approach that’s been use and abused in the past, and repeatedly debunked in the present.

  2. Brandon April 11, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    “When I clicked on the original tweet, it linked to the infographic shown above and not the whole article. It was not immediately apparent that this was not MPR’s own infographic or research. The photo caption cites MNDot as the info source, implying, to some degree, that this is a local story.”

    On the same line as the info source — in the same size, and on the left — it has FiveThirty Eight’s logo. Doesn’t that make it pretty clear, or at least as clear as what led you to think this was a local story?

    • Rebecca Airmet
      Rebecca Airmet April 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Actually, not having previously been familiar with 538, it wasn’t clear. That’s my own ignorance, now happily corrected.

  3. Rebecca Airmet
    Rebecca Airmet April 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    I’m not sure who Mike Olson is.

    When I clicked on the @MNToday link originally this morning, it took me to a twitter feed showing only the infographic posted here. As noted in this post, “I clicked through the infographic to the original article” on 538. The original article is noted at the beginning of my post.

    If you’re referring to the NewsCut blog you just linked to, that wasn’t on my radar when I first saw the MNToday tweet. Thank you for posting a great excerpt from the article on NewsCut. I’m not claiming that all of MPR mishandled a journalistifc issue, just pointing out how one tweet could be misinterpreted to imply exactly the opposite of the linked content.

  4. Matt Steele April 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I also saw the link, by a third party, to the MNToday post without any reference to NewsCut or Michael Olson…. just a photo of a chart, a bad headline, and the image linking (I later found out) to the 538 post. I also was not aware of Bob’s NewsCut post, with more context, until posted by someone else later.

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell April 11, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Great job Rebecca and hats off to you and MPR. I’ve a long list of things I wish could have been handled this well.