CRAFT LESSON | NUMBERS THAT DON’T ADD UP

Craft Lessons

In school, I hated numbers and loved words.  My verbal skills propelled me into journalism where math didn’t matter.

Or so I thought.

When city officials raised property taxes, I needed to calculate a percentage rate on deadline. A press release, which reported statistics behind a new study, needed critical analysis to ensure they supported the findings. A person’s age or phone number for a festival had to be reported accurately.

Numbers in news stories—stock prices, inflation rates, city budgets, dates, ages, and addresses—abound. But all too often, careless or unskilled reporters and editors let inaccurate ones make their way into the news, says investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who cataloged common mistakes:

• Millions confused with billions and trillions.
• Misplaced decimals.
• Assuming statistics in official announcements are correct when they “are often rich with math errors.”

INNUMERATES RULE

There’s no room for illiterates in a newsroom, but innumerates—those uncomfortable with fundamental notions of numbers and chance—are everywhere.

Fear of calculating can stop you dead in your tracks when you’re faced with the daily stream of figures that cross your desk or fill your inbox.

Math leaves some journalists feeling terrified, meaning they’ll accept figures from a source or a press release without trying to verify them.

Getting numbers wrong about diseases or accidents can leave readers frightened without reason by journalistic hyperbole and open to fraudulent schemes.

Journalism is crowded with math-phobes who told their professors, “If I wanted to do math, I wouldn’t have majored in journalism.” The result is a cascade of botched numbers and numerical errors that rank among the most common mistakes made by journalists, according to Craig Silverman, whose book Regret the Error, uses corrections to document the causes and effects of journalistic mistakes.

Two examples:

• “How to… improve your swimming,” a story in the British newspaper The Guardian had this advice: find a pool “heated” to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The correction that followed noted that that temperature was below freezing. What they meant to say was 28 Celsius (82F).
• The Wall Street Journal issued a correction for a recipe for a Bloody Mary mix after it transposed the amount of vodka and tomato juice, calling for 12 ounces of juice and 36 ounces of booze.

Scott R. Maier, a University of Oregon journalism professor, surveyed 1,000 sources cited in math-related stories that appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer.  They counted “an average of two stories with numerical errors in each newspaper edition,” according to his study published in the Newspaper Research Journal.“ What appears to be lacking,” Maier wrote, “is a willingness to question numbers that don’t make sense.”

THREE PATHS TO FAILURE

Numerical errors come in three major categories, says Silverman:

1.    Miscalculations or interpretations made by a reporter.

2.    A typographical error that misplaces a decimal point, adds a zero, or garbles  a phone number or date.

3.    Figures provided by a third party and passed on by the media without proper vetting.

WRITING WITH NUMBERS

Words, not data, make a story. Put your verbal skills to work at conveying data without putting people to sleep.

•  Comparison shop. Put a figure in context by comparing it to something else that people can grasp. “To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds,” IBM says on its website. “Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” Sue Horner, an expert in using numbers, led me to this comparison.
• Round off and substitute. Economists and financial experts need exact numbers. Readers don’t. If 33 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their blood, it would be clearer if you say, “one in three drivers had been drinking.”