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WSJ vs. Sun-Sentinel

August 16th, 2009

pbrefugeeDrywall has been a big story, but not all media outlets have handled it in the same manner. I thought that it would be instructive to do a side-by-side comparison of two newspapers and their coverage.

For those who don’t have a clue about the failure, bad drywall imported from China has been placed in as many as 100,000 homes. The level of property damage is on a par with a major hurricane disaster, and there are likely to be untold health effects, as well.

CASE A: Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal took a recent, sharp turn in its coverage of the drywall case. For the longest time, it denied or downplayed any threat. To see WSJ’s turnabout, we start at the beginning of the year.

January 12: WSJ mentions China drywall for the first time, noting only that it has been cited in “building woes.” Health officials were quoted as claiming that there was “no immediate health threat.”

February 6: Casting the problem as all but insignificant, WSJ blogs asked: “Is Chinese Drywall the New Mold?” and they made attorneys on the case out to be predators:

“Florida lawyers have filed at least three separate lawsuits against the manufacturers and installers of the problematic drywall, including one case seeking class action status. A law firm in Bonita Springs, Fla., has created the Web site, www.defective-chinese-drywall-lawsuit.com, trolling for plaintiffs. ‘Victim of defective Chinese drywall in your house? We can help,’ the Web site beckons.”

March 30: In a piece about a bill promoted by two U.S. Senators, WSJ emphasizes the “rotten-egg smell” coming from the bad drywall, but then they toned down any threat to health:

Florida’s health department said preliminary tests show there’s no “specific” health hazard associated with the sulfur-based gases coming from the drywall, but the agency is conducting additional tests.

March 31: WSJ’s Asia offices post a blog piece offering, “A Chinese View of Drywall Issues,” and details from a report released in China.

The report quotes Xu Luoyi, head of the National Building Materials Industrial Technology Supervisory Research Center, extensively as defending the quality of Chinese drywall. He notes that there haven’t been reports of people suffering negative health impacts from Chinese-made drywall in any places where it has been used, either inside or outside of China. Xu said the problems could also be attributed to environmental factors such as climate.

July 16: For the first time, WSJ hints at the scope of the problem, suggesting by way of a quote that as many as 100,000 homes may be affected. The article details a few health claims and mentions in passing that the gypsum may be synthetic. The minor mention of fake gypsum is what they call in journalism, “burying the lede.”

August 6: Boom! WSJ publishes “The Prisoners of Drywall,” in which the full extent of the problem is revealed. WSJ’s turnabout has them putting a human face on the suffering by zeroing in on one family affected by the defective product. This is months after lesser publications have highlighted the problem:

“The Cramers—along with thousands of other homeowners in Florida and elsewhere—now believe that imported Chinese drywall is making them sick and destroying their property. The drywall, which is used in walls and ceilings, is emitting sulfur-compound gases that homeowners have described as giving off a sour or “rotten egg” odor. Many blame the fumes for eye, skin and breathing irritation and nosebleeds, as well as the corrosion of copper pipes, electrical wiring and air conditioners.”

The tone change is striking. This last piece was done as exposé, and you have to wonder where WSJ has been all the previous months. For the timeline comparison, coverage by a South Florida newspaper comes next.

fla1CASE B: Sun Sentinel

The newspaper was successful in providing great, early work, but it pulled the plug on coverage. Sun Sentinel not only stopped, but seems to have gone so far as to scrub their website.

Note: Every one of the articles listed below is currently unavailable at the newspaper’s site. I managed to find approximate dates, partial article titles, and original links anyway.

April 6: America Needs to Send a Stronger Message to China

“So it’s time for our government to send the message loud and clear: Enough is enough, China. Fix the problem or else. Drywall imported from China during…”

April 6: Crist Asks for Help Studying Chinese Drywall

“The drywall, imported from China during the building boom of 2002 to 2006, has been blamed for foul odors, corroded copper pipes and wires, and respiratory…”

April 6: Gov. Charlie Crist Says He’ll Seek Federal Aid to Test China

“Once he determines the air quality is dangerous for citizens, we hope the next step is a state of emergency.” Parkland Mayor Michael Udine invited Wexler…”

April 9: Residents Seek Help for Chinese Drywall Issue

“Espinal is one of the many homeowners in Heron Bay whose lives have been thrown off the rails due to the use of Chinese drywall in the construction of their…”

April 13: Wexler No Resident

“After touring neighborhoods tainted by effects of Chinese drywall, US Rep. Robert Wexler said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’…”

June 12: What’s Known About Chinese Drywall

“Some drywall imported from China between 2002 and 2006 seems to cause problems. In the past year or so…”

June 14: Bad Drywall Leaves Owners Frustrated, Fearful

“After hurricanes, foreclosures and dizzying price declines, contaminated drywall from China is the latest hardship facing homeowners…”

I don’t know which is worse, now — that WSJ has been slow in coming around, or that Sun Sentinel, early in running with the story, may have later got cold feet.

Sun Sentinel’s missing-link problem, by the way, is a very good argument for not cutting library microform budgets. No matter the reason or excuse in the case, newspaper articles like these should remain accessible to the public. Or, am I wrong?

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