The terms of the nation’s immigration debate are complex and confusing — not least for copy editors at the Washington Post.


Last week we noted that the country’s major newspapers have been citing estimates putting the number of illegal immigrants currently in the country at 11 million or 12 million — a crucial but tricky figure in the debate.


How tricky? Look no further than the second story on the Post’s Web site this afternoon, a piece of breaking news by William Branigin and Jonathan Weisman carrying the headline “Senate Backs Immigration Deal.” “Bill would pave way to legal status and eventual citizenship for many of 11M immigrant workers,” reads the blurb on the home page.


Yet click to open the article, and you get a different story: “A bipartisan group of senators today announced a ‘breakthrough’ on controversial immigration legislation, as the Senate cleared the way for a vote on a compromise bill that would create a temporary-worker program and offer legal status to many of the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.”


Yikes! One million more illegal immigrants in the space of a mouse click? As Stephen Colbert would say, “Congress, get to work on that fence.”


A related piece on the Post’s homepage, “‘Sleeping Latino Giant’ Awakens,” sides with Branigin and Weisman’s lede, referring in its second paragraph to “the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants.”


So which is it? As various observers have pointed out, the figure in question is eminently difficult to pin down.


Even so, the Post could at least lessen the confusion for its readers by being consistent.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.