Monday, January 24, 2005

These mistakes add up

Daniel Okrent, public editor at the New York Times, has a column on the importance of numbers, and copy editors should take note. Numbers can be misleading in a story without being wrong, and it takes careful reading (and more acumen than a simple percentage-change calculator will offer) to flag these errors. Examples:
Sometimes the absence of a number is as deflating to an article's credibility as the presence of a deceptive one. Few articles noting that President Bush received more votes than any candidate in history also mentioned that more people voted against him than any candidate in history. Quoting Michael Moore's assertion that standing ovations in Greensboro, N.C., proved that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is "a red state movie" disregards the fact that metropolitan Greensboro has over 1.2 million people; you could probably find in a population that large enough people to give a standing O for a reading of the bylaws of the American Dental Association.
He discusses the importance of accounting for inflation, giving context, avoiding deceptive stats. And he mentions copy editors:
Although everyone who writes for The Times is presumably comfortable with words, every sentence nonetheless goes through the hands of copy editors, highly trained specialists who can bring life to a dead paragraph or clarity to a tortured clause with a tap-tap here and a delete-insert there. But numbers, so alien to so many, don't get nearly this respect. The paper requires no specific training to enhance numeracy, and no specialists whose sole job is to foster it. David Leonhardt and Charles Blow, the deputy design director for news, have just begun to conduct occasional seminars on "Using and Misusing Numbers," and that's a start. But as I read the paper and try to dodge the context-absent numbers that are thrown about like shot-puts, I long for more.
I do, too.


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