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Friday, December 9, 2011

A Viral Misquotation on Homelessness

Many of the items in our "Myths and Misinformation" boxes develop this way:
  1. An accurate statement appears in print, online, or on the air.
  2. A writer or transcriber quotes that information but garbles it in some way.
  3. Another writer quotes the garbled version, which then spreads through the media.
A case in point (h/t Gwen Gordon) comes from The St. Petersburg Times:
A recent 60 Minutes piece on homeless families in Central Florida living in their cars generated lots of buzz nationally.

The compelling piece, which ran Nov. 27, explored the lives of two teens living with their father, an unemployed carpenter, in their truck in Seminole County.

The day after it ran, dozens of columnists, blogs, radio stations and newspaper websites seized on a stunning statistic — that Florida is "home to one third of America's homeless families." The number appeared on the 60 Minutes' website in an introduction to the transcript of the show.

The problem is that it's not quite right.

Florida is home to one-third of all homeless families who have no shelter at all — people living in their cars, under bridges, in parks. Florida is home to 10 percent of all homeless families nationwide.

A spokesman for 60 Minutes pointed out that the information was right in the actual broadcast, in which correspondent Scott Pelley said "of all the families without shelter in America, one-third are in Florida."

On Tuesday, a day after the St. Petersburg Times notified 60 Minutes of the mistake on its website, the introductory paragraph had been corrected.

But by then, the incorrect information had made its way into numerous stories that cited the original broadcast, typically in the first couple of paragraphs.

"Arielle is 15; her brother is 13. For the past five months, they've been living in a truck with their father, Tom. He is an out-of-work carpenter in Florida, where one-third of America's homeless families live." That was Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Connie Schultz.

"There are Florida charities, some mentioned in the 60 Minutes story, working to help the third of homeless families in America who live in that state." So said the New York Times.