Just this afternoon, I advised my communnication students that if a story seems “too” … much … to retain their skepticism.
I remembered my admonition when the following tweet crossed my timeline tonight:
Wow, crazy story. RT @kingharvest: “Wave of staff suicides at France Telecom | World news | The Guardian” http://j.mp/3EHilk28 minutes ago from TweetDeck
I stifled any “retweet before reading” impulse and clicked the link. In the nut graph, I read: “more than 20 workers take their lives in the past 18 months.” After reading The Guardian story, dateline 9 September 2009 by the way, I learned the following from the next-to-the-last paragraph:
- In 2003, 22 France Telecom staff committed suicide.
- In 2002, 29 France Telecom staff committed suicide.
I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience retweet. Why? I did not know how many people France Telecom employed nor the suicide rate for France. I vaguely knew that suicide rates vary significantly by country and culture. So I started poking around. Was this, in fact, news?
According to WHO, in 2005 the suicide rate for French men was 26.4 per 100,000; for women, 9.2 per 100,000.
But I still didn’t know how many people work for France Telecom.
A second Google search led to this 15 September 2009 report from the Wall Street Journal: France Telecom employs 100,000 and “the number of suicides is less than the national average.”
Moreover, the WSJ article was more precise: 23 suicides among France Télécom in an 18-month period. They had more recent WHO data, as well. Today, a WSJ article reports 25 deaths in 20 months. This is significantly less than the national suicide rate.
How long had I invested in research? Less time than it has taken me to write this article, probably less than 5 minutes.
But why did I have to? The original Guardian article — published on the web with minimal length constraints — failed to provide basic contextual information. Moreover, it buried key information in the foot of the story.
I want to know what else is going on. Why is this a story? For example, that first WSJ reporter noted:
France Télécom is having more trouble than others cutting costs: 65% of the 100,000 people at the company have civil-servant contracts — dating to the time when the company was owned by the French state — and therefore can’t be fired.
What news organization other than the WSJ provided this context? And if the WSJ is providing this framing argument, what are they leaving out?
I am not saying that suicides are “OK” but I would like reporters to demonstrate an understanding of risk and statistics before writing stories that result in wringing hands, bleeding hearts and demands for someone’s head.
Mainstream media keep telling us that they are the guardians of “the truth” (whatever that is). But far too often, when I start trying to find answers to questions that should have been addressed in a story, my experience mirrors this one.
It’s enough to make your head explode. No wonder normal people escape to the sofa and the tube.