(After seeing this correction on my Web site, a reader e-mailed to say the paper actually means “squared” when it says “doubled.”) That’s a mathematical error, but this week also saw The New York Times provide an example of a simple numerical error:
An article on Nov. 1 about libraries with rare-book collections open to the public misstated the period of time covered by Oscar Wilde’s college notebook, at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles. It was written during 1876 and 1878, not 1876 and 1978. And because of an editing error, the article rendered incorrectly part of the Latin title of Galileo’s “Starry Messenger,” at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology in Kansas City, Mo. It is “Sidereus Nuncius,” not “Sidereus Nucius.”
Yes, amusing stuff. But the core issue here is learning to prevent these mistakes. We have to lay waste to the idea that it’s okay for journalists to suck at math. One reason is that this attitude makes journalists feel as though they can’t challenge the statistics contained in a press release. We’re not a fancy retweeting service for companies and governments—our role is to verify information. The other reason to shed the idea that journalism and math don’t mix is that it may, in fact, be completely false.
In 2003, Maier published an article about journalists and math in the Newspaper Research Journal. As part of his research, he gave a math test to reporters at the Raleigh News & Observer. When I interviewed him for my book, Maier told me that, despite the “profound feelings of mathematical inadequacy” professed by the editors and writers, most of them did fairly well. As Maier noted, “strong performers in math outnumbered the weak performers.” Yet nearly all of them were afraid of taking the test, and most expected to do horribly. It’s an admittedly small sample size, but it sends the clear message that journalists need to stop beating themselves up about math.
Fortunately, journalists can easily acquire the math skills necessary to properly do their job. There are some excellent, free online guides for journalists. This online presentation from CubReporters.orgprovides a solid overview of percentages, crowd counts, and means and medians, among other information. The great writing and reporting instructor Jack Hart also has several pages of excellent numeracy advice available online here. It’s a fantastic resource. Finally, Robert Niles has a page dedicated to math for journalists.
There are also a few books written specifically for journalists. The gold standard has for a long time been News and Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields. You should also look at Math Tools for Journalists and Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.
Ah, but what of that remark about journalists, mathematicians, and geishas? Here’s the full correction, for your enjoyment (and calculation):
E=mc3+1: As mathematicians, journalists make fine geishas. One of the paper’s most perspicacious readers has again successfully challenged our careless checking of figures in reports received from overseas and interstate. In one report we had an Olympic swimming pool holding a meagre 1000 megalitres – a waist-high depth that would becalm Eamon Sullivan (‘Angel’, 4, drowns as plastic dam wall fails, page 17, November 25). And in another report we had 40,000 US “gleaners” filling 80,000 4-6kg sacks with 250kg of vegetables – a minuscule 6g per person (Hard times bite in America, World page 28, November 26). We still don’t know what we meant.
Correction of the Week
“ON 18 September 2009, we published an article in which Warren Furman, also known as the Gladiator “Ace”, was reported as denying “internet rumours” that he had raped Jordan. In doing so, the article implied that these “rumours” were sufficiently serious to require a response from Mr Furman.
“In fact the “internet rumours” consisted of very few ambiguous posts on an internet chat forum.