Have you ever wondered when you read a story in The Post about a horrible fire whether the building had a smoke detector? Is this an essential fact in a news story? If it is -- and I certainly think so -- then why do we see it so rarely in newspaper reports?
A reminder of the importance of the safety devices came last week from Chicago, where Mayor Harold Washington blamed the death of four young persons on the lack of smoke detectors.
When you read a story in The Post about fatal traffic accidents do you wonder whether the victims had their seat belts buckled?
I think this is an essential fact, too, but it is rarely reported in news stories. General Motors apparently considers seat belts important in saving lives and reducing injuries. Last month the firm offered a free insurance certificate providing $10,000 to the estate of any occupant of a new GM vehicle who "suffers fatal injuries while wearing a GM seat belt."
The assistant managing editor for metropolitan news, Larry Kramer, had told me members of his staff have been directed to include facts about smoke detectors and seat-belt use in their stories.
Perhaps what we need now is to start a chain reaction. If more editors asked more reporters about such facts, reporters would be more likely to ask their sources and police and fire officials would be more likely to check accident and fire scenes for such information. And all of us in the reading public would be more likely to use the safety devices.
Obviously there are times when accident scenes are so devastated that such information is not possible, but I suspect that more determination could lead to more results.
Another kind of news story affecting the health and safety of readers has been covered for years in The New York Times, but not yet in The Post. The Times, almost weekly, lists restaurants cited by city health inspectors for failing sanitation requirements. Both the posh and the economy spots are identified by name and address.
In New York City, as a recent Times article explained, establishments are rated on a 100-point scale with 70 passing. However, evidence of rodents, or improperly heated or chilled food, spells automatic failure. In a typical report last month 30 restaurants were listed, plus three that were allowed to reopen after correcting earlier violations and three that were closed for having failed to do so.
Obviously, with 15,000 food establishments in New York City and only 17 inspectors, it is likely that some unsanitary restaurants go unnoticed, although the objective is to check each at least once a year. It does not ensure absolute protection for patrons, but it is better than no information at all.
In Washington, editor Kramer said a similar listing, including suburbs, will start in a month.
Another subject of growing interest to consumers -- telephone rates -- brought an indignant letter from a Washington reader complaining about a page one news story and headline in The Post last month. The headline read, "C&P Asks 30% Rate Increase" and the lead told of a proposal "to raise rates in the District by 30 percent and to change the way residents pay for local service . . . with further charges based on usage."
The head and the lead did not recognize that some customers would be paying more than triple their present rates. For example, as the story points out several paragraphs later, bills for "D.C. only service" would go up from $6.38 a month to $23.11.
The reader noted, "A responsible newspaper should not use headlines which leave the reader who goes no further than the headline seriously misinformed." She calculated some of the proposed changes listed in the story as ranging from 230 to 350 percent. I think she has a point. A headline and lead that identify the range of increases would give readers, even quick ones, a better idea of the potential impact of the proposal.
In a similar vein, recent items in The Post about big winnings from playing lottery games have emphasized a $40 million pot in Illinois or a cool million in D.C., and that's the good news. But the bad news -- the sad reminder that for each winner there are hundreds of thousands of losers -- does not appear in headlines, stories or editorials. Usually bad news is big news in the papers; here bad news is no news.