Call it masochism, but on occasion I listen to talk radio, both news and sports.
I've come to agree with Chuck Klosterman that much of sports talk creates a debate where none exists. (Today's topic on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" was whether baseball players should have to wait a week after the World Series to declare for free agency, hardly one of the pressing issues of our time.) And the "news" talk programs are rife with conjecture and speculation, sometimes passed off under the guise of "it's really just entertainment."
Expecting such programs to check facts seems futile. Yet the hosts of talk radio (we won't even bother with the callers) operate with what they purport to be the facts. Like newspaper columnists, these hosts attempt to establish facts and then use those facts to make an argument. Unfortunately, the "facts" are often dubious.
Here are two recent examples from the big AM station in my area and how their hosts' reality doesn't match mine:
HOST'S REALITY: A report on the increasing poverty among students in public schools is flawed because it is based on the number of children getting a reduced or free lunch. The school system actually wants more poor kids because it gets a kickback from the federal government based on the level of participation in the lunch program. School administrators, therefore, badger parents into enrolling even if they don't need the assistance.
MY REALITY: The report does use enrollment in the lunch program to measure poverty among students, but the local school system (a frequent target of this particular host) doesn't twist arms to get people to participate. Here's how it works: During the first week of school, my second-grader brought home a pile of paperwork for us parents to deal with. One piece of this paperwork was an application for the lunch program. For the past two years, we didn't fill it out or return it because we can afford to pay for his lunch, and the school system never said anything about it. There was no pressure to apply.
HOST'S REALITY: America is condoning the "pornification" of Halloween, with little girls encouraged to dress in sexy costumes. (Yes, it's a trend!) Traditional costumes such as princess and Snow White are nowhere to be found, replaced by outfits such as the naughty nurse and the devil. This was big news, according to the host, because it was not only on Fox and CNN, but also the lead story in today's Washington Post.
MY REALITY: My son and I went to several stores to look at Halloween costumes. (He's going as a skeleton.) We saw plenty of traditional costumes for girls, including the ones the host mentioned as vanishing because of this (alleged) trend. Yes, there were sexy outfits at one party store, but these were clearly intended for adults. Also, the Post does not have this story in the lead position on the front page today, but it did have a story yesterday. I cannot find that page online to see whether it was the lead, but I strongly doubt that it was.
CONCLUSION: Talk radio doesn't have copy desks, but it could sure use some. Be especially wary of any "facts" presented there. We can't expect perfection in off-the-cuff remarks or in conversations between hosts and callers. But hosts should be expected to present factual information in their prepared remarks, just as columnists in print and online are required to have solid facts to back up their viewpoints.