Reporters are notoriously bad with numbers, so much so that “I was promised there would be no math” is a standing quip in most newsrooms.

True to course, the New York Times proves the case at least twice this morning.

On page one, no less, an above-the-fold headline announces “Rents Head Up As Home Prices Put Off Buyers.” The accompanying story by David Leonhardt informs us that “[r]ents in about 85 percent of large metropolitan areas have climbed in the last year,” whereas just two years ago rents were falling in 85 percent of markets.

Wow. Sounds pretty convincing — at least until you read past the jump, on to page C6 and into the 14th paragraph of the story.

There, we learn two things: First, that the average residential rent nationwide rose 2.5 percent from the spring of 2004 to the spring of this year, which wasn’t even enough to keep up with inflation. That means, in inflation-adjusted terms, rents are falling, and consumers are paying less than they were last spring. Second, we learn that before the alleged 2.5 percent “increase,” average rents actually dropped by 4.5 percent from 2001 to 2003. Take-home message: rents are still lower than they were four years ago, in both inflation-adjusted terms and in absolute dollars.

Next we turn to the House & Home section, in which the Times’ Matthew L. Wald tells us right up front to brace ourselves for an expensive winter, because “The price of heating oil has nearly doubled since 2003, to about $2 a gallon retail, and natural gas, the heating fuel of choice in much of the country, has tripled since the late 90’s.”

But once again, the jump tells the tale. There, we’re treated to a graphic (not available online) which reveals the price of heating oil in East Coast states has actually risen, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $1.50 per gallon in 2003 to $2.50 per gallon today — substantially more than the “about $2 a gallon” cited in the lede, but still an increase of just 67 percent, not a doubling. Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted price of natural gas nationwide has risen from $7.80 per thousand cubic feet in 1998 to $11 today — an increase of 41 percent, not a tripling.

Get those boys an editor — and get that editor an abacus, or at least an inflation calculator.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.