11 August 2010

Washington Post writers need to spend more time with maps

Map from Google Maps
(This post has been updated. See below the jump.)

There is no Oak Street in Trinidad. There is an Oates Street. A simple glance at a map of the neighborhood proves that in less than a minute. Why can't our city's largest newspaper invest that time and effort when writing stories about DC?

Over the last couple days, I've complained to many friends and acquaintances that there has been very little coverage of the Ward 5 race in DC's influential newspapers and TV stations. All the oxygen has been sucked out of the room, so to speak, by the mayoral race, and to a much lesser extent, the council chairman's race.

Even the smaller newspapers have dedicated little to this important political scramble. Capital Community News used to publish a paper called DC North which covered news across Ward 5. In March of this year, they rebranded the paper MidCity DC, pulling back coverage of Ward 5 to the Bloomingdale neighborhood, no longer covering the rest of the ward.

The Washington Post published a story about the Ward 5 race on their website last night, and it's in the print version of today's Metro section. But they didn't take the time to do some basic geographic fact-checking. Ann E. Marimow wrote the story, with contributions from Nikita Stewart, but the two apparently didn't run the story by a fact-checking staff member to make sure they got the details right.

The story paints a picture of the incumbent, Harry Thomas Jr., by mentioning parts of the ward where he grew up. One of those places was his grandmother's house in Trinidad, which they claim was on "Oak Street." Click on the Trinidad map above—there is no Oak Street, there is an Oates Street. Sure, it's a little detail, but little details are the things we expect professional journalists to get right. Otherwise, us crazy bloggers might as well be your only source of news, with our supposed lack of fact-checking, lack of editors, and Cheeto-stained fingers.

It's not the first time the paper has expressed a lack of geographic knowledge about DC. Last month, I wrote about the Post's tendency to make broad generalizations regarding the city's quadrants. A lack of understanding regarding Northeast and Northwest, and how Ward 5 relates to the two, is on display in today's story as well.

Here's the article's first sentence:
Ask residents of the District's Northeast neighborhoods about city government, and many are quick to say that they feel neglected, that Ward 5 has too often been a dumping ground for stinky trash transfer stations and unseemly X-rated clubs.
This makes it appear that Ward 5 and the Northeast quadrant of the city are co-extant. Northeast is much bigger than Ward 5 (it includes parts of wards 4, 6, and 7 as well) and Ward 5 isn't just in Northeast (Ward 5's Bloomingdale and Truxton Circle neighborhoods are both in Northwest).

These are simple things that could have been caught if run by someone familiar with the geography of the city. Find that person on your staff and make sure they get to weigh in on these things, Washington Post writers, because your natural advantage over us bloggers (a bigger audience and better news gathering infrastructure) doesn't mean much if you can't get your facts right.

UPDATE: By mid-day, the Post acknowledged the error regarding Oates Street, and made a correction to the article.


  1. Where are the X-rated clubs in Ward 5? I think a run-of-the-mill strip club, of which I can name two in the ward, would merely warrant an R-rating. If the real-deal X-rated clubs don't have store fronts or are otherwise "underground," then what does that say about the, hmm, investigative abilities of the authors?

    The popular news media never -ever - gets DC right.

  2. couldn't agree more. it's lazy.

    and who am i supposed to vote for this fall? ward 5, council chair, mayor... my feeling toward all of them can be summed up in a syllable: meh. i hope that changes.

  3. District street names changed in the early 1900s.

    Before that, each neighborhood's developers got to name them, so there were repeats throughout the city. It's quite possible that there WAS an Oak St. in Trinidad before that.

    Brookland Ave had a neat piece about that the other day, complete with a cool old map showing the old names for Brookland Streets: http://brooklandavenue.com/blog/?p=2441

  4. DC_Becky: I saw that post, it was very interesting and informative!

    I've been to the Washingtoniana room at the MLK Library downtown, and looked at the original plats for the neighborhood, and the only other name I've seen for Oates Street at any point was "O Street." This was when the subdivision was being platted—it was never called anything but Oates once the road was built.

    Even if it had been called something else before, that's no excuse for those writing this article not getting it correct in the here and now.

  5. I know a gay sex club.. er... gym... opened there a couple of years ago...

  6. The geography lesson applies to the suburbs too. The most recent story about the Dulles Metrorail project has the rail line being built "in the median of the Dulles Toll Road." The "median of the toll road" is actually the Dulles Airport Access Road! The subway is being built in the median of that road.

  7. .. corrected and posted a correction at the top of the story. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/10/AR2010081006255.html

  8. The Washington Post is a pale shadow of its former self... it's been sad to watch it get thinner and weaker as time goes by.

  9. While your observation is valid, I regret to inform you it's falling on deaf ears. I wrote to the Washington Post Editor a couple years ago with the same complaint about the Washington Post writers not getting their facts straight when writing about the various wards. Have not seen any changes to their attitude thus far.

  10. The Post's local desk is an afterthought; it's the place where they stick underpaid interns who want to be the next Jayson Blair. The only thing the Post answers to is its advertisers: car dealerships and suburban real estate developers. I can't imagine either of these groups caring much about Ward 5 or Trinidad.


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?