Journalism of Doom!

This post started as one of my “Not big enough to rant about” things, but upon finding this example of senstaionalism and scaremongering it soon escalated.

Have a look at this article published in August 2013 in The Atlantic about Stalin’s Rope Roads in Chiatura, a Cable Car system originally built in the 1950s to serve the population of the town and to help boost the production of the local manganese mines.

It’s a very nice collection of photos by Amos Chapple with descriptions of the aging cable car system and the town it serves, showing how little things have changed since its introduction back in 1954. The oldest part is scheduled to be replaced in 2014.

As far as can be discerned from the internet the only major incident on the tramways of Chiatura was in 2008 when one of the hauling cables snapped on one of the 17 remaining tramways and a car was left stranded whilst rescue operations took place. No one was hurt.

Now take a look at this article published on the Daily Mail’s website on 24th September 2013:–despite-riddled-rust.html

You may notice some similarities. Namely that the photos are exactly the same, and that the descriptions are very similar. However there are some key difference between this rehash and the original article.

Let’s look at the headline for starters: 

“The miners risking their lives in Stalin’s rusting cable cars: Workers forced to ride death-defying ‘metal coffins’ built in the 1950s criss-crossing Georgia mining town”

How much can be wrong in a simple headline? Well….

• The cable car system serves the whole town, not just the mines, so it isn’t just miners using them.

• The Miners also risk their lives crossing the road, eating a boiled egg in fact doing anything risks their lives, they could slip on a banana skin and kill themselves.

• Metal things rust, have a look at anything made of steel that’s been outside…it’ll be rusty, it’s a sign of age. I was on a ferry the other day, it was rusty, it had been painted over, it still worked. Rust is just the surface of the metal oxidising.

• At no point are the workers shoved into the carriages at gunpoint, they are free to take the road, but it’s long and winding.

• Isn’t everything but actual death considered Death-Defying. Drinking my coffee is Death-Defying as it didn’t kill me.

• ‘Metal Coffins’ – note the quotation marks to imply that’s completely made up to make it sound more interesting.

• Not all of the tramways and cars were built in the 1950’s that’s when they started work on it.

So really that should read: 

“The people doing everyday things in Stalin’s old cable cars: Workers choose to ride normal ‘metal cable cars’ built after the 1950s criss-crossing Georgia mining town”

Not quite as dramatic I’ll grant you, but a darn sight more accurate.

After the attention grabbing sensationalism of the title things do calm down a bit, and you can see the author has done a lot of research into the story. Here is the text from the Wikipedia entry for Chiatura, highlighted in bold red are the parts copied directly, and just plain red for those parts that were reworded.

It is inland, in a mountain valley on the banks of the Kvirila River, and since 1879 has been a major centre of manganese production in the Caucasus. There is a rail link to transport manganese ore to the ferro-alloy plant in Zestaphoni. In Chiatura are located the Tsereteli State Theater, 10 schools, Faculty of the Georgian Technical University, and the Mgvimevi Cathedral (10th-11th centuries).Manganese production rose to 60% of global output by 1905. During the 1905 Russian Revolution Chiatura was the only Bolshevik stronghold in mostly Menshevik Georgia. 3,700 miners worked 18 hours a day sleeping in the mines, always covered in soot. They didn’t even have baths. Joseph Stalin persuaded them to back Bolshevism during a debate with the Mensheviks. They preferred his simple 15 minute speech to his rivals’ oratory. They called him ‘sergeant major Koba’. He set up a printing press, protection racket and ‘red battle squads’.

So about two thirds of the Wikipedia entry copied and pasted.

A few other little bits of the Daily Mail article caught my eye though, for instance, they neglect to mention the incident in 2008 where 12 people were delayed when a cable snapped and the brakes halted the gondola safely and they had to be rescued (and subsequently compensated and offered counseling by the mining company). Instead the Daily Mail mentions a cable car incident in another town where there were fatalities, presumably because that’s more interesting. It’s a shame they didn’t copy and paste that part of the story as they may have been able to avoid the spelling mistake:

“When the hauling rope broke the lower gondola rolled back and slammed onto the wall of the station injuring people inside, while the upper gondola rolled at high speeds and dropped 20 metres as the breaks did not work.”

Some of the captions for the photographs are oddly descriptive as well. Almost as if the author is trying to make it look like they have put some work in. things like:

Tramway operator with apples

Original caption: A tramway operator eases down the brake as a cabin docks.

Daily Mail Caption: A man operates the cable car system as he tucks into a bowl of apples. The array of buttons and dials have survived since the 1960’s when the system was installed

A man? Just some random bod then? Not necessarily an employee of the tramway owners. Whose to say they are his apples? He could be selling them, or maybe there’s someone else just out of shot, could they be wax apples to liven the place up? And why is it so amazing that the “array of buttons and dials have survived since the 1960’s”?

Frayed Cable

Original caption: Right: A discarded piece of track cable. The cables weigh around 26lb (12kg) per meter.

Daily Mail Caption: Signs of aging: A discarded piece of track cable has been frayed and left rusted by almost 60 years of constant use.

I can only assume the Daily Mail have found a date stamp somewhere on the cable to be able to state it has been in use for 60 years. Any sane person would assume that the cable has been replaced at some point in that time and the discarded piece has frayed and started to rust after being cut.

Man in thought

Original caption: A local lost in thought as a cabin of Tramway 25 docks.

Daily Mail Caption: Fear: A man appears to be praying as he boards the rust-ridden cable car on the journey down to the bottom of the valley

The Daily Mail would have you believe that this man is praying for his life as he sets off on a perilous cable car ride in a cabin that could fall apart at any minute. Rather than, as the original author states, being lost in thought at the end of a familiar journey. Look at the picture, the man is in a cable car with a fair few other people so there isn’t much room. It’s probably a trip he’s done plenty of times before so the view is nothing new, and if you look closely you can clearly see his hands, nose and forehead are pressed against the glass. To me, this man has zoned out on a boring journey in cramped conditions, he’s not fearing for his life, if he were he would be taking the road.

So there we go, a prime example of an article showing that the Daily Mail likes nothing better than to take an innocent article showing off the wonder of an engineering feat that may well be replaced next year, and turn it into a scaremongering story of death and fear. I’m surprised they haven’t claimed that rust gives you cancer too.



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