As another example, here’s how a Post front-page story last summer described life on a Washington-area bike trail. “The traffic is unbelievable -- stop and go for 45 miles,” the Aug. 18, 2006 story claimed. It went on to compare the W & OD trail to a busy highway, insisting, “the trail has turned into a crowded commuter alley on weekdays and an overcrowded recreational destination on weekends, a place where sometimes speeding cyclists, in-line skaters, walkers, joggers and others fight for a narrow slice of pavement, with increasingly dangerous results.”
Well. As it happens, I’m one of those bicycle commuters, so I get a first-hand look at the trail (or at least a 3.5 mile stretch of it) four days a week. There are, occasionally, cyclists who race by without warning. And there are occasional near-misses, it’s true. However, the trail is nowhere near as dangerous as the Post makes it sound when it says, “everyone seems to be jockeying for pole position.”
The story also featured something that seems less common in the news business today: an attributed quote. “Half the people out here aren’t wearing helmets,” 56 year-old Cindy Cluck, a volunteer trail-watcher, told the paper. “It just frosts me.”
Again, my experience doesn’t line up with that description. I’d say about 90 percent of the riders I see are wearing helmets. In fact, on a recent morning, 19 of the 22 riders I encountered on the trail had headgear on. If, instead of taking Cluck’s word for it, the reporter had stood alongside the path for half an hour, I suspect she too would have seen that most riders wear helmets.
In the end, stories which seem aimed at bringing down a particular political figure, or stories that misrepresent things readers see every day, will end up making readers wonder whether we can trust the paper to get things right. Perhaps the best advice is, as the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you read.”