Same data, different headlines

These headlines ran in the L.A Times (left) and the Sacramento Bee (right). Both stories concern the same subject: The release of California's water conservation statistics for the month of October.

I spotted these seemingly conflicting headlines on DWR’s water news roundup yesterday.

What gives? Who’s right?

Confusing as it may seem, both stories are correct. The journalists are looking at the same numbers but are comparing them in different ways.

The L.A. Times story (on the left) focuses on the fact that following a somewhat alarming drop-off in water conservation rates in August, savings have slowly ticked upward in the ensuing months. Back in August, conservation levels fell from 20.1 percent to 17.6 percent (compared to 2013), after officials eliminated water conservation mandates for most cities. That slide, however, appears to have been stopped or even reversed, with savings of 18.3 percent in September and now 19.5 percent in October.

Thus, the Times’ conclusion that our efforts have slightly improved.

What about the Sacramento Bee’s story (on the right)? Rather than focus on month-to-month trends, the Bee story begins with a comparison of October 2016 with October 2015. Our 19.5 percent savings this past October were lower than the 22.5 percent saved the preceding October. In that sense, our efforts are lagging behind last year and have been for several months now.

My own story was more along the lines of the L.A. Times: That the decline in conservation seen earlier this summer appears to have stabilized, though we got lucky with a lot of rain in October which reduced outdoor demand.

Either story angle, however, is perfectly legitimate.

Bottom line: These issues are nuanced, and there’s only so much room in a headline or a lede to convey the complexity. People would be wise to read entire articles before reaching a conclusion. But in today’s 140-character world, I’m under no illusion that is likely to happen.

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