Every year, Scott Maier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, asks his students to raise their hands if they went into journalism because they love writing. Unsurprisingly, most of them put their hands in the air.
“Then I ask how many of them got into journalism because they love math and numbers, and the hands that stay up are pretty few,” he said. “In many cases, they got into journalism to stay away from math.”
Journalists love to joke about how we suck at math. “As mathematicians, journalists make fine geishas,” declared a correction in the West Australian last year. If you look at the sheer volume of numerical errors committed by the press every day, you’d probably be inclined to agree.
Almost every story contains a number, be it a statistic, an address, or someone’s age. Journalists deal with numbers every single day, and yet so many of us willingly profess ignorance or fear when faced with simple arithmetic. This fear combines with a lack of training to rank numerical errors among the most common mistakes made by journalists. I have an ever-expanding archive of these errors.
But it’s time to recognize that handling and interpreting math and numbers are some of the cornerstones of journalism. “As newspapers and news magazines chart a new course for themselves where they have to explain rather than just report, what’s happening is that our reliance on math and numbers becomes even more important, rather than less so,” Maier said.
Numerical errors usually occur for one of these five reasons:
• A journalist mishears a correct number given to them by a source and fails to double-check it.
• A source unwittingly provides a mistaken piece of information and the journalist fails to verify it.
• A source deliberately fudges the numbers and the journalist fails to verify them.
• A journalist or editor miscalculates a figure.
• A journalist re-reports a mistake made by another media outlet.
These are very straightforward scenarios, all of which can be solved with two basic actions. First, journalists need to acquire the basic math skills needed to properly handle numbers and figures. Second, they need to develop the habit of double-checking every number and figure. (I’d call this the mantra of “Math twice, publish once,” but I don’t want to sacrifice language at the altar of arithmetic.)
Things become complicated—not to mention embarrassing and embarrassingly hilarious—after inaccurate numbers make their way out into the world. The more often a statistic is reported and re-reported, the more authority it assumes. At a certain point, an incorrect number gains a wake of supporting citations that can challenge or overcome the actual facts.
Another byproduct of numerical errors is amusing corrections. I hand out the Numerical Error of the Year every December, and am never short on entries. Last year’s winner was from The New York Times:
An article on Wednesday about the delivery of Barry Bonds’s 756th home run ball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum misstated the number of votes cast in an online contest held by Marc Ecko, the fashion designer who purchased the ball and asked people to vote on what to do with it. About 10 million votes — not “10,000 million” — were recorded.
Zeroes, and specifically how many of them to use, are a persistent problem. The Advertiser of Australia this week ran a very confusing correction in a similar vein:
LAST week’s NIE resource on Science questions answered by CSIRO incorrectly stated that there are 12 zeros in one billion billion. There are 24 zeros if a million times a million is doubled. Many now regard a billion as a thousand times a million. This would be 18 zeros when doubled.