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Can’t anyone in the news media read a map? Ditch the ZIP codes.

This is a national problem. It was caused by the United States Postal Service. It has been made much worse by our over-reliance on computers and smart phones. And sadly, the problem has become codified by unthinking reporters and even public information officers for police and fire departments.

In short, a good portion of the news media and some PIOs regularly relay misleading information because they rely on ZIP codes to give locations of incidents. Doing so can make people believe a fire, a murder or even a major national news story like a terrorist attack has occurred in a jurisdiction other than where it really occurred. It’s likely something similar has happened where you live.

Last night and this morning the Washington area TV news operations and at least one radio station reported that a major fire at the Mount Vernon Antiques Center in Northern Virginia occurred in Alexandria, Virginia. It did not.

The fire was actually located at least five miles south of the border of Alexandria, an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a tweet from Alexandria Fire Department Chief Robert Dubé. The chief’s tweet came in response to my twitter tirade that began shortly after the fire was discovered.

ZIP codes have brainwashed us

This problem is decades old. In case you haven’t noticed, USPS ZIP codes do not necessarily follow the boundaries of towns, cities and counties. Throughout the United States, there are millions of people who have an official mailing address that says they live in a jurisdiction where they do not reside. I only have to look into the mirror to find one of those people.

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax County gets my real estate tax checks twice a year and I vote for the people who run the Fairfax County government. But my ZIP code is 22044. That says I live in Falls Church. Falls Church is another independent city in Virginia. They don’t get a penny from me and I don’t vote for the Falls Church mayor and council.

Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Fairfax County residents who live miles from both the southern and western borders of the City of Alexandria, have Alexandria mailing addresses. Many of these people will swear they live in Alexandria even though they don’t.

While I haven’t asked, I’m reasonably certain Allison Silberberg, the mayor of Alexandria, would be ecstatic if all those people with Alexandria mailing addresses outside the city limits started writing “City of Alexandria” on their tax checks. With that windfall Chief Dubé would be able to hire some more firefighters and buy a few new fire trucks. But that money isn’t coming to Alexandria. Without it, city officials also shouldn’t have to take responsibility for the bad things happening outside its borders.

Mayor Gerald Glaubitz

Remembering Pearl Harbor and a town’s borders 

My experience with officials complaining about this issue goes back to the mid-1980s and my early reporting days at Channel 9 in Washington, DC. Gerald Glaubitz, Pearl Harbor survivor, former fire chief and mayor of the town of Morningside, Maryland for 43-years, would regularly call me. Gerry, who died in 2005, knew me from the 70s when I worked as a Prince George’s County Fire Department dispatcher with his son Larry, a Prince George’s County firefighter. That, and because I liked talking to him and hearing his war stories, somehow made me the mayor’s main contact at the TV station.

Like most people, Gerry didn’t call to tell us we were doing a good job. Each call – and there were dozens – was to remind us that a crime we reported as having occurred in Morningside was actually in Prince George’s County, outside the town limits. He was always right and we were always wrong.

The years long experience with Mayor Glaubitz had me regularly and rather aggressively suggesting to my newsroom colleagues that they check the correct jurisdictions and neighborhoods on a map before putting it on the air. And this wasn’t just for Morningside. The Associated Press, where much of this news came from, seemed to rely heavily on ZIP codes to verify incident locations.

Other relatively small jurisdictions were regularly cited in the media – thanks to ZIP codes and a main post office – as having more crime, car crashes and fires than were actually occurring within their borders.

Capitol Heights, a small town on the edge of Southeast Washington, seemed to be getting credit for everything happening in the central part of Prince George’s County, including events at the US Air Arena/Capital Centre about three miles from the town limits. Just to the north and west a bit, the City of Hyattsville took the hit for another large swath of Prince George’s County.

The map on the left highlights the borders of the Town of Capitol Heights, Maryland. On the right the much larger footprint of Capitol Heights mailing addresses/ZIP codes.

My experience is the police and fire department public information officers in Prince George’s County became sensitive to this issue before their colleagues in other National Capital Region jurisdictions. My guess is they also heard once or twice from Mayor Glaubitz.

Does anything actually happen in Fairfax County?

For Glaubitz trained reporters like me it seemed the largest county on the other side of the Potomac River was entrenched in a decades long bit of jurisdictional slight of hand and wasn’t budging. As a reporter, I complained beginning in the 1980s, to a long series of public information officers for Fairfax County that they should stop identifying locations of incidents by ZIP code. They weren’t budging. They were famous for saying the incident occurred “in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County” even though they could show me no such thing on any map.

This so-called “Alexandria section” extends as far as eight miles into Fairfax County from the southern most point of Alexandria. It covers the congested Route 1 corridor, one of the busier areas for criminal activity in Fairfax County.

Similarly, Falls Church ZIP codes cover another busy swath of the county. Using the ZIP code method, a suspect could be chased from the City of Alexandria’s western border to the City of Falls Church and never set foot in Fairfax County, even though Falls Church and Alexandria are almost four miles apart and don’t share a border. It’s magic.

If a Fairfax County PIO or press release described an incident as being in “Alexandria,” “Falls Church” or the “Alexandria section of Fairfax County” a headline or a TV chyron would often read something like “Alexandria murder,” “Fire in Falls Church” or “Alexandria accident.” See what was going on here?

You could say that for decades Fairfax County was getting away with murder. In fact, I just said it. More specifically they were getting away with not being completely straight with the public about where murders and other crimes were occurring. I can’t say with any certainty that this was part of a bigger public relations plan, but more than once when confronting a county official I would get a shrug or a little smile along with the claim they were “technically right” thanks to the United States Postal Service.

Fairfax County is now playing nice with others

In the last year or so Fairfax County finally changed its ways. It probably didn’t hurt that I was badgering both the police department and fire department on Twitter. No longer a reporter, I’m more free to state my mind. Still, I give both departments great credit for regularly using neighborhood names and doing away with mailing addresses that cite other jurisdictions like Falls Church and Alexandria.

About last night

I’m very pleased to report that during last night’s fire the Fairfax County Fire/Rescue Department made no mention of “Alexandria” in its tweet (above). That’s why it is was more frustrating that others, including at least four TV stations, one radio station and the Virginia Department of Transportation, claimed the fire was in “Alexandria.” Many continued to do so this morning. For the record, The Washington Post, Alexandria Citizen and Alexandria Patch got it right.

When I began correcting reporters and organizations via Twitter some fought back hard, claiming they were right. A few thought I should have better things to do with my life. That part may be true.

Technically it’s also misleading

Yes, technically they have a leg to stand on – maybe even more than one or two legs. The mailing address backs them up. The website for the business that burned says “Alexandria, Virginia.” The various computer mapping programs, including Waze indicate this fire was in “Alexandria.” Neighbors told reporters they live in “Alexandria.”

All of that is true, but what remains is this: no maps label this area or any of the area outside the City of Alexandria as “Alexandria.” There are plenty of nearby and well-known community names like “Hybla Valley” and “Mount Vernon,” but no “Alexandria.”

It should be standard operating procedure for all news organizations to pull up a map (you probably have one in your hand right now) and locate the jurisdiction and closest community from the actual labels on the map – not the ZIP code or mailing address data – before posting or reporting a story.

News organizations are supposed to inform and provide clarity. Telling us that last night’s fire in the 8100 block of Richmond Highway was in “Alexandria” does neither.

And then there’s this

While I strongly disagree, I still understand why many news organizations reported the fire was located in Alexandria. But the following two little bits of reporting make zero sense.

In one case, a TV station posted in both its headline and the body of its web story that the fire occurred in Arlington County, Virginia. Arlington County is even further away than Alexandria.

Another TV station took the claim about the fire being “in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County” in a totally wrong direction. That station reported the fire was burning in the “Fairfax County section of Alexandria.”

Wow! In more than 40-years this is the first time I’ve heard anyone try to make that claim. Points for creativity.

I know I’ve lost the battle

Because the data on our smart phones and mail we get at our homes will in many cases continue to tell the public something that isn’t true, this is going to be a very hard battle to win. The only chance comes down to diligent PIOs and news organizations. I encourage you to let them know when they get it wrong and even occasionally praise them when they go beyond the ZIP code and get it right.

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