The IUSB Vision Weblog

The way to crush the middle class is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation. – Vladimir Lenin

Attention Journalism Students Do Not Make a Mistake Like This

Posted by iusbvision on May 29, 2011

Always remember to double check the spellings of names and be SURE to double check all stats and numbers with a second source. Remember figures don’t lie but liars figure as they say. If you just take a single sources word for a key statistic in the story you may end up with egg on your face.

Washington Post:

Moonlighting blamed for air controller fatigue

By Ashley Halsey III, Published: May 24

Young air traffic controllers who make up almost a third of the workforce have had to work two or three jobs to compensate for a 30 percent wage cut imposed during the Bush administration, the head of their union told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the subcommittee on aviation that wages have improved under a new contract signed 18 months ago, but many young controllers continue to hold more than one job.

“That’s asking for trouble,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) responded. “How do you make the case that that doesn’t cause fatigue and poor judgment?”

NATCA spokesman Doug Church said entry-level wages were cut to about $30,000 in some parts of the country in 2006. He said some local controllers began waiting tables at the Leesburg Applebee’s near Dulles International Airport. Under the new contract, he said new controllers start at about $45,000.

The number of recorded controller errors spiked by 53 percent in fiscal 2010, and after an overnight controller supervisor was caught sleeping in the tower at Reagan National Airport this year the Federal Aviation Administration was stung by an embarrassing series of sleeping controller incidents.

The subcommittee Tuesday sought explanations from Rinaldi, FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III and Greg Belenky, a sleep expert from Washington State University.

They got sharply different perspectives from Babbitt and Scovel, who has been asked by the committee to investigate problems in the air traffic control system.

Babbitt expressed determination to reduce errors while underscoring the unparalleled air safety record in the past decade, which has not seen a single major commercial airline crash. He pointed out that the vast majority of controller errors posed little genuine risk to passengers, and said the increase in recorded errors was largely due to more accurate technology and a system that encourages controllers to report their mistakes in return for a promise they will not be punished.

Did you read that very carefully? Good work. What is the narrative of this story? The story is that the union believes that there are more air traffic controller errors because they are paid so poorly (30-45K) that they must take second jobs to make ends meet. The FAA Committee says that errors are just being reported more accurately because of the new error reporting system that is in place.

Now let us look at the story critically. We know that most readers will not get passed the 5th or 6th paragraph in a story unless it greatly interests them. With that said the narrative becomes more clear “Government employees are underpaid and the union is struggling to help them and as a result of the inferior pay lives may be lost.”

The prudent reporter in Washington DC would know that the government union is not so weak as to not be able to negotiate a decent wage. Washington in general does not work that way for government employees which tend to be paid rather well. You can see that we only have one source for the 30-45k pay figure. What would we learn by checking that number from official sources?

Here is a government job posting to hire a citizen to become an air traffic controller which was found in mere moments on the internet. This is an official government web site:

http://jobview.usajobs.gov/GetJob.aspx?JobID=99420536&JobTitle=Air+Traffic+Control+Specialist&jbf574=TD

As you can see the pay range starts at $113,000. Now that we have a rather glaring discrepancy we should look further. A trip to the Bureau of Labor Statistics will tell us what most any government employee makes:

http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos108.htm

Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits. Median annual wages of air traffic controllers in May 2008 were $111,870. The middle 50 percent earned between $71,050 and $143,780. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $161,010. The average annual salary, excluding overtime earnings, for air traffic controllers in the Federal Government—which employs 90 percent of all controllers—was $109,218 in March 2009.

They also receive vacations, sick days, and insurance.

The average salary is 109K plus benefits and according to the BLS web site the bigger the airport the larger the pay. Only 10% make near the $45k number mentioned and as the pay scale explains, this would be the most out of the way airports that only occasionally see traffic. No where is 30K even mentioned.

It is safe to conclude that the union representative gave the Washington Post reporter a sizable dose of spin. It is certainly safe to say that a false picture was created. Anyone with access to the internet could see that the story has a major problem in mere moments. The “Line Editor” at the Washington Post should have checked this number as well, as that is a primary responsibility of a “Line Editor”. Now the paper as an institution is starting to look pretty flimsy.

This reporter, Ashley Halsey III, compounded his mistake with a rather large blunder. A long time respected Washington intellectual noticed this discrepency and was kind enough to drop the reporter a note about the error. In response to an official source showing the air traffic controller pay scale the reporter wrote back:

“Why do you assume the website is correct?”

The real question is, why did the reporter assume the union representative gave a number that was representative of most air traffic controllers in the face of a .gov official source? It seems clear that the reporter responded with a rather flippant and elitist attitude.

Unfortunately for the reporter the Washington intellectual is a committee  member of an important press organization. The Washington intellectual pointed out that this is not the first time Ashley Halsey III had a problem.

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