Last night I saw this headline — and I exhaled a small sigh of relief:
Of course I’m not relieved about half a million people without electricity during the cold winter over the most festive holiday of the year. Definitely not. My relief came from seeing the number ‘half a million’.
Throughout this entire ice storm ordeal, I have seen news source after news source confusing two numbers: The number of electricity customers affected, and the number of people affected.
Let’s take a look at a few:
In each of these stories, the number reported is sourced from the electrical utilities who—naturally—would report the number of customers that have lost power. For an electricity company, a ‘customer’ is equal to an account number, which corresponds with an individual hydro (or, for non-Canadians, electricity) meter. These numbers coincide with those reported on Toronto Hydro’s web newsroom.
But anyone who’s lived in a house or an apartment with more than one person knows full well that a single hydro bill is usually shared by a number of people. How many?
That means the initial blackout didn’t put 300,000 Torontonians in the dark, it put three quarters of a million.
If you read the headlines, it sounds like about 10% of Toronto’s 2.5 million people are without power. That’s incorrect. It’s closer to one in three.
Another way to do the math is to figure out how many customers Toronto Hydro has: A quick google search reveals a PDF on Toronto Hydro’s website. Page 14 of that document clearly states that at the end of 2012, there were 718,661 Toronto Hydro customers.
That means the ice storm knocked out 42% of all Toronto Hydro customers.
How is this not an emergency? Electricity is one of the key lifebloods of any modern city. Without electricity, most homes can’t even turn on their gas furnaces—that’s usually considered an issue in Toronto during December.
However which way you slice it, when 33-42% of the largest city in Canada is incapacitated and without heat in the winter, most would consider that an emergency.
While in many cases the media didn’t technically screw up (“we said two hundred thousand were without power… we didn’t specify of what”), their stories and their headlines dramatically mislead the public about the size and seriousness of this ice storm.
Imagine what the response might have been if the headlines read “750,000 without power,” or “One Third of Toronto shut down by Ice.” Joel Eastwood and the Toronto Star may have fixed the error last night, but it’s clear that had the media done their due diligence in the first place, the response to the storm could have been much, much different.
UPDATE: As of noon on December 26, Toronto Hydro reports that 72,200 customers are still without power. That's 180,000 residents still in the dark 100 hours after Toronto Hydro first announced massive power outages. This is well past the recommended 72-hour emergency preparedness timeframe outlined by the federal government.