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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The NYT Makes Silly Mistakes Because It is Determined to Use Numbers Without Any Context

The NYT Makes Silly Mistakes Because It is Determined to Use Numbers Without Any Context

Wednesday, 28 May 2014 04:29

Newspapers should be in the business of informing their readers, but not the New York Times. Last fall I had raised the issue of putting large numbers in some context so that readers would be able to understand their significance. I was primarily thinking of budget numbers. Almost no readers have any idea what the billions or trillion mean, but they would immediately be able to understand a number expressed as a percent of the budget. The latter takes no additional research, it takes one second of a reporter's time to use a spreadsheet or calculator.

Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor agreed with me. So did David Leonhardt who was the Washington Bureau chief at the time and is now the editor of Upshot section. Leonhardt said that to most readers reporting a number in the hundreds of billion was the same thing as just writing "really big number." It seemed that this agreement would lead to a change in the paper's practices. However that was not to be the case.

The paper still routinely presents budget and other numbers without any context, even though everyone involved in the process knows these numbers are meaningless to the overwhelming majority of people who see them. Of course the numbers are also meaningless to the editors and copy editors at the NYT who review copy.

We got more evidence of this fact in a correction to an article on the cost of demolishing abandoned buildings in the city of Detroit. The correction told readers:

"Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the headline on the home page gave an incorrect figure for the estimated cost of ending blight in Detroit. It is $850 million, not $850 billion."

Yes, million, billion, who can tell the difference? If this number had been expressed relative to the size of the city's economy the error might have been clearer to the NYT's editors and likely would have not found its way into print.

The city of Detroit has a gross city product of roughly $35 billion, assuming that the share of the city's economy in the metro area economy is proportional to its population. This means the cost of addressing blight, as indicated in this article, would be roughly 2.3 percent of the city's annual output. By contrast, if the article had used the billion number it would have reported that the cost of blight was 2300 percent of the city's economy. Presumably an editor would have been able to realize that the latter was an implausible figure and caught the mistake before it found its way into print.

It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for not expressing numbers in a context where they are understandable to NYT readers. The failure to do so also means the numbers are less understandable to NYT editors, which means that the paper will allow more embarrassing typos into print.

Comments (4)Add Comment
You have more faith than I
written by dax, May 28, 2014 6:31
My guess is that almost every NYT editor would have let pass the 2300 percent just as easily as the billion. First, I doubt if NYT editors understand percentages that well. And secondly, I doubt, even if they were to understand percentages, they would understand enough about a local economy to understand 2300 percent was an improbable number.
Numbers, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by JDM, May 28, 2014 8:51
There have been many studies, and news stories over the years, about pricing "mistakes" in stores, and they've consistently found a large majority of these "mistakes" are in the stores' favor. Very few are in the customer's favor.

How many of these financial reporting numbers mistakes are far too low versus far too high? Are they "mistakes" like the stores' pricing seems to be?
written by Wallace, May 31, 2014 8:37
So many people simply do not understand percentages, including many journalists. Many of people chose disciples that allowed them to avoid math, which is probably is best compared to another language and should be introduced at a very young age rather than hitting ossified brains with it later in life.

And, expressing these amounts in percentages requires some real work.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.