Want To Increase Online News Readership?

Here’s a suggestion: provide links to primary source data.

The inspiration for this mini-rant? Two stories on Navy and Marine motorcycle fatalities. The first ran in the NYT (and Seattle Times) on Sunday; the second ran on CNN.com yesterday.

In the last 12 months, 50 of the 58 sailors and marines killed on motorcycles were on sport bikes, which are faster and easier to maneuver than their cruiser counterparts. The Army, which also has a training program, lost 36 soldiers in sport bike accidents in the same time period.

Not surprisingly, articles like this get my motorcycle friends talking, especially those of us who teach MSF courses. And we always want to know more than the reporter thinks we need to know. In this story, our questions include:

  • What is the ratio of sport bike ownership to cruiser ownership among Marine and Navy riders?
  • For the fatality-involved bikes, how long had the rider owned his or her motorcycle?
  • When did the motorcyclist take the basic MSF course (a requirement for riding on the base)? Or did the motorcyclist take the basic course (it’s possible that the bike was off-base)?
  • What percentage of the fatality-involved Marines had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? If deployed, how long had they been back in the States before their fatal crash.
  • What is the fatality rate and how does that compare to civilian motorcyclists?
  • What are the ages of fatality-involved Marines and sailors? We know that the fatality-rate for both autos and motos is higher for 20-somethings than for 30-somethings.

This is all basic data — and the answers provide context (also know as nuance) for this story.

An intrepid member of my motorcycle group (Google can be your friend, but I contend that he should not have needed to do this research) found this PPT and these statistics on the Navy’s website and this article from the Marines. Here are few data points missing from the article:

  • Navy/Marine fatalities: of the 58 deaths, two were passengers, so there were only 56 “riders” (operators)
  • Navy/Marine fatalities: 25 of the 56 riders (45%) had no training (against military regulations)
  • Navy/Marine fatalities: 16 of the 56 riders (28%) were not licensed (against military regulations and state law)
  • Navy/Marine fatalities: 7 of the 58 riders and passengers (12%) were not wearing a helmet (against military regulations but may not violate state law)

The NYT reporter noted that of the Navy/Marine fatalities, 87% involved sport bikes and 13% involved cruisers. We wanted to know if this was reflective of ownership.

On 31 October 2008, 50% of Navy and Marine riders reported (registered for riding on base?) that they ride “sport bikes”; 50% reported that they ride “standards.” Note that a “standard” bike is not a “cruiser” so we have non-comparable data if we want to compare fatality-involved bikes with ownership, if we assume that this 2008 ratio remains constant over times.

That said, the “sport bike v cruiser” dichotomy is not crystal clear in the data in the military PPT: is a Suzuki SV650 a “sport bike” or a “standard”? I’d call it a standard; in the fatality PPT, it’s called a sport bike. But there is only one SV650, so we can say with some degree of certainty that the fatality rate for sport bike riders appears to be higher than the ownership rate. What we can’t say anything about the ratio of fatality to ownership among cruisers.

We also wanted to know if the Marine/Navy fatality rate is greater than the civilian rate. The article doesn’t answer this question, but the answer appears to be “yes,” with caveats:

  • On 31 October 2008, there were 31,420 licensed Navy/Marine riders. Assuming this number is static, then the Fiscal 2008 fatality rate for rider/operators is 0.18 per 100 riders.
  • This 1993 table from ABATE Maryland put the fatality rate in Maryland at 0.06 per 100 riders.
  • According to NHTSA, there were 4,810 motorcycle fatalites (no idea many were passengers) in 2006. According to the FHA, there were 6.2 million motorcycles registered in 2005. Many people with a license no longer ride. Many riders own and ride more than one motorcycle, but many registered motorcycles sit in garages. (There are three of the later – counting a scooter – and one of the former in our household.) This very rough fatality rate is 0.08 per 100 registrations, which I think is lower than the rate would be for active riders, if we could determine that number.

Also, these 31,420 Marines and sailors have reported that they ride. I don’t think those guys riding without a license had reported that they had a bike; ditto those with a lack of training, because training is required to bring a bike on base. Therefore, I think this fatality rate is inflated, but there is no way to determine how inflated.

So at the end of the day, trying to develop this comparison yields … more questions than it answers. Should the reporter have tackled it? I think the answer is yes, but I’m biased.

The reporter provides no data on prior fiscal years, just fiscal 2008. We don’t know that this is a growing problem, we’re just told that it is without evidence. But the Marine website article notes that off-base fatality data are only two years old. And even though 2008 is presented as “the most on record” — the reporter doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are only two years of data. “The most on record” might mean that in fiscal 2007 there were 56 fatalities — riders only, no passengers. We simply don’t know.

We also don’t know if European and Asian licensing programs — tiered by engine size — help reduce fatalities, even though this is offered as a possible solution in the NYT article, by a military spokesman of course. What he doesn’t mention is that 34 of the 56 bikes were 650 cc or under! These data are in the military PPT briefing on the study. Did the reporter not get this summary?

About My Increasing Readership Claim
There is absolutely no reason in the almost unlimited storage place that is the web that the NYT (which seems to have broken the story) could not have provided links to data tables that answered these questions, to the extent that the data exist. And where they don’t exist, the NYT should have noted that. Otherwise, how do we know that the problem — and proposed solution — has been appropriately defined?

Think back to the last time you read (or watched) a news story that dealt with a topic where you have intimate knowledge, where you are a subject matter expert. How many questions were left in your mind, like these? How easy would it have been for the news organization to provide access to the contextual data that they used to produce their story?

When we can watch — or listen to or read a transcript of — an entire interview with a politician or candidate for office, we can make up our own minds as to the “objectivity” of the reporter’s interpretation. Context is extremely important in this era of spin and soundbites. It’s particularly important as we seek societal responses to “public problems.”

This is a new form of sourcing, one widely adopted by the political blogosphere. And it is uniquely geared to the era of limited scarcity that is the hallmark of cheap digital storage and “free” hosting of documents, of videos, of audio, and of photos.

Not everyone who reads (or watches or listens to) a story is going to dive into those detailed background documents. Not everyone has to! But if transparent sourcing becomes a common practice, then I believe that the collective audience for that news site will grow (both page views and stickiness). And the news organization that does it first will reap first-mover advantage.

Am I suggesting that “reporting” should be more than providing “he said/she said” claims? Yes, I guess I am. And that’s because non-fast-breaking “news” is more valuable when it is contextual … and ladies and gentlemen, this story certainly falls outside of any “fast-breaking news” pattern. The initial military data were released 15 September.

So there you have it. Practice transparency and full context — provide a service that news organizations are currently ignoring — and see your online readership grow. Yeah, it’s a claim with no evidence, a hypothesis to be tested. But a logical one, don’t you think? And one that might – just might – help lay waste to claims of media bias.

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5 thoughts on “Want To Increase Online News Readership?

  1. Thanks, all.

    Tracy, I’m not even asking them to link “outside.” They could post PDFs of government documents on the paper’s website — or post tables or data from those reports as HTML pages.

    And like you, I think external linking adds more in value that it might cost in people leaving the site.

    They’re ALL looking for the short-term click-through/page view, which is going to lead them to more and more sensationalism. IMO Drudge started this snowball. :-/

  2. Bravo II
    Yeah, anything you can do to move journalism away from sensationalistic, unsupported sound bites into documented facts would be an improvement for me. I am concerned in an effort to compete with increased amateur hour online and deal with declining sales NYT will move towards the hot sell. And yes, I have had that happen…a lot. Especially related to farming.

  3. In general, there is a HUGE deficiency in the amount of linking done to online versions of stories done by companies that consider some other medium their primary medium. In general, they take whatever was on TV or “in the paper” and put it online – even if it’s a breaking story that appeared online first. Finding and using links takes a HUGE amount of time – it probably adds five, ten minutes to everything I publish (and when you publish a dozen or so items a day, that adds up), even short stuff, but I believe it adds a HUGE amount of value. Even short blurbs that are about something at , say, Community Center X, is more valuable if I link the phrase Community Center X to the website for that center, so people can find its location, or expiore more. And the type of sourcing data links you mention are essential. I hope more people start doing this. It’s one thing that makes blog-format reporting different from other formats, but it doesn’t HAVE to be – on the Interwebs, EVERYTHING can link somewhere else, so that any story, article, post, tweet, is just the hub of a wheel.

  4. It’s funny, when Mark and I read that article, we had almost the exact same questions as you and your friends had. In fact, Mark’s first question to me was “I wonder how many of them had attended a safety course?” while I was asking him “I wonder what the ratio of sport to cruiser bikes is in the military?”

    These partial news stories that just rely on sensationalism and hysteria are a large part of why Mark and I don’t have TV now. And I don’t read the news (Wait.. Wait… Don’t Tell Me – my news source. [wink])

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