Monday, September 05, 2005

AAA Mystery Numbers

I had an hour to kill waiting yesterday, so I was reading the Washington City Paper and ran across an article about the scientific rigor of the AAA travel prediction statistics. We've all heard them. "AAA predicts record numbers of travelers this {major holiday} weekend." Substititute any holiday between Memorial Day and Christmas and you have a precanned news story. The City Paper article quotes some newspeople that went to the trouble of figuring out where the numbers actually came from. The technical answer is a little more rigorous than "just pulled them out of our ass", but not by much. Mildly entertaining.

Stuck in the middle of THE Washington Post comics page is John Kelly's Washington which I occassionally read if Ask Amy doesn't fill my craving for no heavy lifting required reading. On Mondays, John puts on his answerman hat and fields questions from the great unwashed. Today Vincent McDonald of Fairfax Station asked:
The Labor Day weekend is upon us. We hear authoritative pronouncements from AAA Mid-Atlantic confidently predicting the number of persons in the metropolitan area who will be traveling over 50 miles outside the area during the holiday weekend. We hear similar predictions for Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. How do they know that? What methodology do they use?
Now what do you think made Vincent McDonald so curious about the subject? Could it have been reading about it in the City Paper a few days earlier? Now John Kelly goes and does some real reporting and gets quotes from AAA spokespeople and everything. However, nowhere does he seem to have consulted the article that is at that very moment available for free on every street corner and in better-kept public restrooms in DC nor does he quote any of sources the City Paper article used.

Now I had no idea that the validity of AAA news-hole filler stats where such a burning issue that the two major news publications (yes, I am ignoring the Times) in the same city were both serendipitously hot on the trail of this breaking news at the same time completely oblivious to each other.

I could make some cynical joke about everyone sharing from the same straw at the giant wire service news trough, but we'll give everybody the benefit of the doubt and just be glad we can now be reassured that statistically suspect news releases are getting the glaring cross-examination they deserve.

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4 comments:

dena said...

I don't know why AAA or the newspapers even bother. I know that every summer holiday zillions of Norhtern Virginiians head down 64 and funnel throught the Hampton Roads Bridge tunnel to either the Outer Banks or Virginia Beach. It's been like that since I can remember. Not even the gas prices slowed it down this weekend.

visiting from michele's

Valderbar said...

Yes, not taking for granted the authority of sources is important. I, for instance, can be counted on as an authority in my own life and household but accuracy may drop away sharply for this outside the range of my high acuity sense.

Michele sent me,

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