Some breathtakingly bad California drought journalism

I’ve been avoiding wasting time on the “someone’s wrong on the Internet about California drought” genre – so much is being written that is so bad. But Elijah Wolfson’s Newsweek cover story (I won’t link, find it if you must) is so breathtakingly well-researched-and-written-ly bad that I’ll let it stand in for the genre:

We’re driving in my beat-up Volkswagen through the Central Valley, just south of Sacramento, and even here the effects of the drought are stunning: the hills to the west, usually soft and green, are burnt-crisp and yellowed. The fields spreading for miles in both directions are also toast; they look as if they would crumble under your feet. Here and there, crops still live, but they are hedged in on all sides by death.

Let’s compare that image with the reality of California agriculture, as authoritatively described in U.S. Department of Agriculture crop data. Acreage for almonds, grapes, and strawberries, California’s money crops, have been flat or even trending up during the drought. Yields have been down in some cases, and the struggle for water has been real. Farmers in many cases have been fallowing lower value crops to move water to those money crops (hay is down 114,000 acres, cotton is down 125,000 acres, for example). The drought is real. Land is being fallowed, but the majority of California’s agricultural land remains in production.

Wolfson visits an almond orchard where the farmer has run out of water, and the trees are dying. This is an important, and sad anecdote.

But ethically responsible journalism requires you to match up your anecdotes with data. In the big picture, almond acreage is up. An anecdote that suggests the opposite is bad journalism.

To be fair, Wolfson at one point slips in some data (5 percent of California cropland fallowed) that undercuts his “hedged in on all sides by death” imagery, but when imagery higher in a story overpowers data buried deep within, we can see the rhetorical game being played. And at that, he does it poorly, noting that agriculture “losses of over $2 billion and 17,000 jobs.” There, again, no context. Q: $2 billion of an agricultural economy of what size? A (which he doesn’t give): $33 billion. Ditto the jobs? Again, he doesn’t say, but in the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California jobs in crop production (the key sector Wolfson seems to be laboring to describe) have actually gone up in the last couple of years. What explains that? The answer, as Jeff Michael has explained, is adaptation to the conditions of drought, not fleeing to a wetter part of the country as death presses in on Californians from all sides. There are so many caveats that I’m being as dangerous as Wolfson, but isn’t the point of journalism to help negotiate that dangerous terrain for your readers?

Scattered crops “hedged in on all sides by death” is great rhetoric, and it may describe the subset of the land he saw. Yes, in some places, things are very bad. In others, less so. The differences matter. Real drought in California is important, and serious, but it is a far richer, more complex story than the misleading picture Wolfson sketches from the window of his battered VW.


  1. I was thinking something more or less along the same lines. California is so big that conditions in Crescent City in the north and Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley aren’t even remotely similar.

  2. Data-based reporting? That would be amazing, but it doesn’t seem to be the forté of most reporters.

    Some basic understanding of geography would be good though. The hills are supposed to be golden. That’s dormancy, not death.

  3. Water folks get questions like, “Is the California drought real, real or is it all hype?”

    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the fruited plain!

  4. I thought that article was particularly funny because the state is still greened up. The rain in December was just enough to make it look like winter had come; all the grasses sprouted. Last year really did stay brown all year, but this year it doesn’t look as bad as it is yet. If he’s seeing dry field, he’s probably looking at some recently cleared winter wheat (which did fine this year).

    Yep. Terrible article.

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