Worthless reporting on a worthless report

I’m not sure exactly how this came to be, but somehow we reached a point quite some time ago where the metric for objectivity in political journalism shifted from reporting the actual truth about a situtation to giving equal time to both sides of an issue. Generally, this is accomplished by finding advocates of both pro and con positions and quoting them. So if you’re, say, Christopher Heredia, and you’re writing about an inclusionary zoning report from the disastrous Blue Ribbon Commission, you call up Greg McConnell and then you call up some IZ advocacy group, write down whatever they both say, and then BOOM! you’re done and you can go grab a beer or to your yoga class or whatever it is you like to do with your free time. Great.

Of course, the downside of that approach is that you end up with nonsense like this in your stories:

Geeta Rao, policy director for the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, called the commission recommendations “a missed opportunity.”
“Of all the 170 inclusionary housing policies in California, this is the weakest one,” Rao said.

Um…It isn’t. It isn’t even close. If one wanted to verify her statement, it is as simple as looking at this report (PDF!) issued by Rao’s own organization surveying inclusionary zoning policies in California. What might one learn from that? Well, for starters, 6% of IZ programs are entirely voluntary! Strike 1.

4% of statewide IZ programs require less than 10% of newly built units to be marked affordable, just like BRC recommends for the first 2 years, and 45% of IZ programs require 10%, which is the same the BRC’s suggestion for the first 2 years of off-site affordable construction. The recommendation proposes phasing in the policy so that after 2 years, 15% of all newly built units must be designated as affordable, or 20% if they’re built off-site, a stricter requirement than 50% of the jurisdictions in the entire state with the policy on the books. (In the interest of saving space and not repeating myself too much, I’m going to to detail the BRC’s recommendations here. You can read about them in my Novometro story for this week. Also recommended is dto510′s blog on the subject.)

Nearly all existing IZ programs include developer incentives to make the program more feasible and palatable, and of the 15 most productive programs, 71% actually subsidize the cost of building the affordable units (compared to 38% of other programs). From the report:

The most productive programs were much more likely than the other programs to subsidize the construction of affordable units (71 percent vs. 38 percent). The substantial difference suggests that funding is an important facet of a successful inclusionary program.

Well…duh! Of course, the BRC proposal includes zero developer incentives. Strike three!

Apparently this lie is the party line over at the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, since the Trib story has a similar quote from a different policy director there:

Dianne Spaulding, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, said a policy requiring developers to set aside only 5 percent of homes as affordable would be among the weakest inclusionary-zoning policies in the state.

People, especially people advocating for policies, lie all the time. They say whatever they think will make people most sympathetic to their position, whether or not it bears any relationship to the truth. So if you quote someone and they’re lying, does that absolve you from responsibility to be accurate in your reporting? Apparently our local political writers at both the Chronicle and the Trib think so. It shouldn’t.