By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If you don't like the News' coverage of the Texas weather, just wait a minute--it'll change.
The Monday, March 27 story on the previous Saturday night's bad weather put the price tag for damaged roofs and cratered cars at $15 million. "Storm damage in area could hit $15 million," was the headline over Aline McKenzie's story, which led the paper's metro section.
But the next day, in the very same place in the paper, the News had a dramatically different number: "Hail damage estimate rises to $80 million-plus," read the headline.
Oddly, both numbers--one more than five times the other--came from the very same expert: Jerry Johns, president of the Southwestern Insurance Information Service, an insurance-industry trade association.
In McKenzie's Monday story, Johns, sounding mightily impressed with the storm's impact, "roughly estimated the damage at $10 million to $15 million, mostly to roofs."
"There will be an overwhelming number of claims, both large and small," he told McKenzie. "A 60-second hailstorm can cause $2 million in damage, easily."
McKenzie also wrote that the storm "created widespread but generally minor damage," quoting a Red Cross spokeswoman saying, "It is not really as severe as it first appeared to be."
But in Tuesday's story, written by Eric Garcia, Johns had multiplied his calculation to at least $80 million. "We determined the damage was far, far more than we ever expected," Johns explained.
In his fourth paragraph, the reporter took a stab at explaining the discrepancy: "The estimate mushroomed from Sunday's $15 million"--actually $10-15 million--"because the storm happened over the weekend and people were unable to report their damage until Monday."
Johns also told Garcia that because claims would be coming in for days, the number could go even higher.
By the March 30 paper, it had done just that. A tiny news brief (even the News has some shame) reported Johns' projection that claims would total more than $125 million--more than eight times his original estimate.
Of course, Johns was presented in the News throughout as calculating the total damage, not what claims had come in so far--and presumably was expert enough to take into consideration what damage hadn't yet been reported.
Or at least come up with a number that was on the right continent.
The situation illustrates the foolishness of hanging coverage so heavily on a single number--particularly such a shaky one. (Though in this case the problem was a low initial estimate, it's also questionable to rely on a source from the insurance industry, which has a motive to offer inflated numbers to impress the public with how much it pays out in claims.)
McKenzie's initial story, grasping to sound authoritative, barely acknowledged the grossly rough nature of Johns' calculation; it also didn't identify Johns as an insurance-industry spokesman.
Garcia, despite the mushrooming damage estimate, remained impressed enough with Johns to repeat his hailstorm mantra in the Tuesday story: "Hail is a strange phenomenon. Sixty seconds of hail in a concentrated area can cause $2 million in damages."
Why was the News' expert so far off base?
BeloWatch found a possible explanation in the one-paragraph March 30 news brief: it revealed for the first time that Johns is based in Austin--200 miles from Dallas' storm.
In an interview with BeloWatch, Johns said he based his initial estimate--likely to be revised upward yet again--on previous hailstorms "of similar magnitude that have hit the Metroplex."
Insisting that he had warned the News that his first estimate was "very preliminary," he readily acknowledged the fallibility of his methods when applied to a hailstorm that strikes on a weekend, before many claims have been called in.
"Hail is a strange phenomenon," he told BeloWatch. "The first estimates are generally fairly unreliable. But as you well know, the media needs a number."
Major Revelations Dept.
HAITI STILL FACES HURDLES, EXPERTS SAY
--Headline, page 1, March 30 Morning News
The Big Story?
As the editors of the Dallas Morning News saw it, the most important story in the entire world to local readers on the morning of Monday, March 27, 1995, was...the selection of Steve Hatchell as commissioner of the Big 12 Conference!
Hatchell's appointment as top administrator of the new college athletic conference--resulting from the addition of UT, Texas Tech, A&M, and Baylor to the Big Eight--ran across the top of the front page that Monday, beneath a large double-deck headline: "SWC chief Hatchell chosen to lead Big 12 Conference."
Not the sports page, mind you. The front page.
BeloWatch found this news judgment, well, a little bewildering. While not exactly a journalistic atrocity, it is the sort of peculiar call that serves as exhibit A to those who believe the News' biases deeply color its coverage.
Sure, the Big 12's going to be a fun conference to follow on the field; it'll mean new football and basketball rivalries among traditional national athletic powers.
But the selection of the conference commissioner?
That's the sort of story you normally see on the bottom of the sports page--which, come to think of it, is exactly where the Fort Worth Star-Telegram played the story.
Sure, the News had a couple of exclusive details about how the vote that selected Hatchell over a University of Kansas candidate broke down. But, except for habitual readers of agate type on the sports page, who cares about such arcane details?