Thursday, March 16, 2006

How To Write a Happy Story

I had to wait on this until I could check a paper edition of today's Commercial Appeal, and sure enough my suspicions were confirmed.

It was a front page story, above the fold, with a large picture alongside. The news? DeSoto Leads leads way in metropolitan growth: Fayette and Tipton help to fuel suburban boom. The picture? Two women with two children on a playground. Awwww. Doesn't that make you feel good?

But reading the article itself you see odd things going on. For starters, there's the Memphis-centric view of those counties, that they exist not as themselves but as rump states of the mothership, Greater Memphis.

The front page, pre-jump part of the story has plenty of feel-good-itude. It also has lots of clear numbers: percentage of growth and numbers of people then and now. (From the site, wherein this story originated in a press release. Root around in the tables or in the population data sets for more.)
The county on Shelby's southern border, which bumped up its ranking among the country's 100 fastest-growing counties from 35 to 32, grew to 137,004 residents in the new figures. DeSoto's growth accounted for 53.5 percent of the 55,711 population gain in the eight-county metro area since 2000.

Fayette County, immediately east of Shelby, continued its strong growth, with an increase during the same period of 19.7 percent. The county grew to 34,458 residents from 28,796.
But while the story is clear and informative on DeSoto, Tipton and Fayette Counties, when it comes to Big Momma herself, Ol' Shelby, suddenly the paper grows murky and obscurantist:
Shelby County is continuing to grow, but figures reflect that all of Shelby's growth is from births exceeding deaths and from immigration from other countries.

The estimates show that since 2000, Shelby County has had a net loss of 33,012 residents to outward movement of people and a gain of 9,694 from international migration, producing a net migration loss of 23,318. The county had 36,030 more births than deaths.
Say what?

Translated from "Don't look at the man behind the curtain" it's like this: The city of Memphis, just through births and death of the folks who live here, grew by 36,000 people, or 4%. Not bad, but not amazing. (I need to look up the birth data for information on births to women by race to see demographics trends. But that's for another day.)

However, 33,000 people "out-migrated," meaning they left Memphis either for the non-Shelby suburbs or points farther away. That means a net growth of only 3000 people now, or point4%. Why "international" migration is mentioned, I don't know. Does that include Mexicans? Somehow, I think not.

So, I'll show you, from the US Census data, what the CA for some reason doesn't want to say plainly. Shelby County's population grew from 897,472 to 909,035 people from 2000 to 2005, a net gain of 11,563. That's growth of 1.29% during the same time DeSoto was growing 28%.

As the story notes, little ol' DeSoto, with just 137,000 folks provided more than half the total regional growth over powerhouse Shelby with nearly 6 times the population.

What does it all mean? It tends to call into question what the CA has been trying to sell for a while, that Memphis isn't losing people, just "reshuffling" them around the county and nearby counties. Not so. We are losing people. Efforts to attract folks back to the city proper aren't as successful as are being portrayed.

All this was buried at the bottom of the story, the point where very few people bother to read all the way to. Ask a journalist and they'll tell you that's how you sneak past the unpleasant things that refute your story's main point. It happens all the time.

Including our Happy!Happy! daily.

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