Confusion on BGE deal lingers for many readers

Public Editor


Based on two weeks of e-mails and phone calls, it's clear that many Sun readers are still confused about the recent deal between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and BGE that offers options to mitigate the large electric bill increases that take effect July 1.

Is this partly the fault of The Sun's reporting and editing? Yes and no.

With a deal so complex that only a few BGE executives (and Sun columnist Jay Hancock) seem to fully grasp it, providing readers with clear answers to all the questions has been difficult.

Newspapers are working harder than ever to explain complicated economic and social issues by using graphics, charts and summaries that present the information in its simplest form. But if these devices oversimplify or even obfuscate the facts, they can confuse more than clarify.

In my view, The Sun has done an excellent overall job of reporting on the BGE story but has not consistently provided useful graphics to accompany those articles. The internal process of creating, producing and checking these elements has not been as thorough as it should have been.

Reader Cathy Schoen said some of The Sun's graphic material has been hard to understand. "I think most people would just like to know what the hell is going on and if we will be able to afford to pay the dang thing. I just want to know if I still will be able to afford my grocery bills or not."

An April 21 front-page graphic was designed to explain how a "typical" monthly BGE bill would be affected if a customer participates in the company's bill deferral plan and how it would be affected if the customer does not participate. An "average" monthly bill of $67 was used in the graphic calculations, beginning in July 2006 and ending in June 2009.

Readers complained that the graphic did not make sense or was not relevant to their situation.

The Sun's wording in the graphic was partly to blame. Using "typical" and "average" to describe the $67-a-month scenario was inappropriate because - as most readers know - there is no typical situation and their average monthly bill is higher than $67. This scenario also was flawed because it assumed flat electricity use year round.

In The Sun's defense, all the figures used in the graphic came from BGE's parent, Constellation Energy, which also has struggled to clarify the deal.

As Hancock noted on April 26, the $67-a-month figure is actually a median, not an average increase. That helped clear up some reader confusion.

Hancock's column also responded to questions about another figure: what really constitutes the much-discussed 72 percent increase. Some BGE representatives told customers that only the "electric supply" part of their bill is rising 72 percent, so some readers believed The Sun and others had overstated the size of the increase.

Hancock's reporting showed that a customer's entire bill would increase 72 percent. The electric supply portion raise is actually much higher - closer to 125 percent. In short, it's the bill and not the rate that will go up 72 percent.

"I hope The Sun will make the bill versus rate distinction in all of its articles and headlines from now on," said reader Barbara Gilmore after reading Hancock's column. "The difference is important for readers and customers to understand and I think too many people still don't get it."

An April 27 front-page article, "Numbers differ on electricity rate plan," was a commendable effort to examine conflicting reports on the deal. It reported on discrepancies between figures from BGE/Constellation and the Ehrlich administration.

The article was accompanied by a "Rate relief at a glance" chart, which was designed to show the differences in monthly billing figures as calculated by BGE/Constellation and by the governor's office.

Once again, a number of readers responded. Many, like reader Ryan Heaps, did their own math and came up with different results, underlining the tortuous complexities of calculating the bill.

"I have used the calculations on page 8A of today's paper and came up with a different cost than the Constellation explanation," he said. "This is adding more confusion to an already confusing situation."

Now, more than ever, the newspaper must redouble its efforts to ensure that all of its graphics and charts are precise and really useful.

In recent days, the newspaper's coverage of the Public Service Commission's hearings and rulings on the BGE/Ehrlich plan has been comprehensive and accessible. It has documented the questions raised by customers, examined the PSC's decision-making process and specified the continuing points of contention between the PSC and BGE.

The reporting and the editing of these articles is providing what readers need and want: clarity and relevant information.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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