Accuracy in Media

In a new piece, The American Prospect claims that ships pollute like cars: “The pollution one ship emits produces the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars; emissions from just 15 ships would be the equivalent of all of the cars in the world.”

This isn’t true, but it does support the Prospect’s argument. American Prospect is a heavily pro-Union outlet, strongly supportive of American jobs for American workers making American products. They’re entirely entitled to that view as well – but we can see how container ships being horribly, grossly polluting would be something they’d like to believe.

Except it’s not actually true. Their source is the British newspaper, iNews. iNews does make the same claim, but it’s such an extraordinary fact that one other journalist saying it isn’t worthwhile proof. The truth is that ships produce just the one type of pollution, sulfur oxides, in that sort of quantity. They most certainly do not produce “pollution” like that – not CO2, not nitrogen oxides, not particulates, methane or any of the other things we worry about. In fact, sulfur oxides are thought to cool the atmosphere, which slows global warming.

The backstory is that there’s sulfur in all oil and we prefer to use the low-sulfur versions in cars and on land just because we don’t like the sulfur oxides floating around. Ships tend to use the cheaper high-sulfur stuff – and also the sludge from the bottom of the refineries – because most of their pollution is far out at sea where it falls into the ocean and becomes nothing pretty quickly. There can be a problem with ships burning this bunker fuel in ports, so many places now make them use special low-sulfur fuel to do that – like all of Europe does.

Sure, we don’t need to know all this detail –– but it is still untrue that one ship produces the pollution of 50 million cars. However, it would be convenient to someone arguing against imports to protect American union jobs.

There is a larger problem here, which is that these are the sorts of facts that do just get repeated, again and again, until they become part of the passing scene, embedded in the general knowledge, Even though they’re both wrong and also already largely solved.

The American Prospect is a small circulation outlet but it’s a solid part of the American progressive movement. It may only gain some half million visits a month but they’re near all political activists, or at least politically committed – it’s influential in its small corner.

There is another way to look at this. The Daily Mail reported on the point in 2009 and got it right – it’s only sulfur. And let’s face it, if you got out-fact-checked by the Daily Mail over a decade ago, then perhaps you really do need some remedial journalism classes.

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