Post stories that just don't add up

By Andrew Alexander
Friday, November 26, 2010; 5:49 PM

A recent Post story said that of the $1.3 million the D.C. Salvation Army collected during its annual Red Kettle fundraising drive last year, about $667,000 came from outside local Giant supermarkets.

"That's a little less than half of the group's holiday total," The Post reported.

"It's actually a little more than half," an annoyed reader e-mailed. "When a journalist gets numbers wrong or does the math and gets that wrong, it reflects badly on the journalist, his employer, and news purveyors in general."

A review of published corrections for the past three months shows that few days passed without a numbers error. I regularly hear complaints that numbers in Post stories don't add up.

Some involve faulty statistics. Others result from math errors. Many are inexplicable, such as last Tuesday's A-section story that said new industry-wide health-care rules, "will affect about 180 Americans with private insurance" (it should have been 180 million). All damage credibility.

"It's amazing what a minor numerical error can do," said journalist Craig Silverman, who tracks news media mistakes on his Regret the Error Web site. When a news organization inaccurately reports that a large company lost billions instead of millions of dollars, he said, "the story is completely blown apart. It really contributes to misunderstanding."

In the digital age, with a growing amount of raw data available online from government and other sources, numerical literacy has never been more important to journalists. Exploiting that data can yield powerful findings, such as The Post's recent numbers-rich "Hidden Life of Guns" series that traced weapons used in killings of police officers.

"Today's journalists no longer just cover the fire and the city council meeting," said Scott R. Maier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon who specializes in newsroom numeracy. "They try to explore what's happening behind the story, and that often involves math."

But newsrooms seem phobic about numbers. That self-perception is so deep-rooted that it's often joked about among journalists.

"I think we have a culture where it's okay to say, 'I'm a journalist, which means I'm terrible at math,'" said Silverman. "And just that pervasive attitude, that you don't need to be good at math to be a journalist, contributes to a lot of mistakes."

Sarah Cohen, a former Post database editor who shared in a Pulitzer Prize, agreed. "We've found it charming when people in the newsroom say, 'I can't do math,' " said Cohen, who holds a journalism chair at Duke University. "I've never understood why we think that's a good thing, but we think that spelling names wrong is bad.

"What really bothers me is not the deep math, but the mistakes in simple math," she said.

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