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Public editor: Something isn’t adding up Add to ...

Here’s a note I sent to our staff Wednesday reminding them that we not only make mistakes in spelling and names, we are also prone to math errors.

One of our readers in Huntsville, sent a very funny letter to the editor a few weeks ago about our collective trouble with numbers. It is typical of many, many journalists who studied journalism because we couldn’t face math problems.

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The Globe and Mail article on Dieppe said: “Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, only 2,210 returned to England; 1,946 were taken prisoner and 913 were killed.” Our reader wryly noted of that story: “That remarkable result reminded me of a recent study in which, when 1,000 journalists were surveyed, the results showed that 50 per cent couldn’t work out percentages, another 2/3 didn’t understand fractions, and the remaining 257 couldn’t add up.”

Very funny, but also true. We aren’t good at numbers: not just the math, but also getting the numbers right. (Did you do the math yourself on the above example? Are the numbers supposed to add up to the 4,963 Canadians involved because it is off by 106. Is there overlap? It’s not clear.)

Earlier this month, we had a printed video intro referring to a woman who lost her job now earning a third less than her previous job. The video story itself said the woman was earning a third of her previous salary. Huge difference there. When in doubt think of a number like 90,000. A third less takes 30,000 off the total while a third of it is 30,000. Big difference.

As you know from my tally of corrections, it is names and titles and numbers and percentages that trip us up most.

Here’s a sampling of corrections over the past month about numbers:

Varsity Properties has $70-million in its development pipeline. An incorrect figure was published Tuesday.

There were about 2 million Jews in New York in the 1920s. Incorrect information appeared last Saturday.

Montreal’s 1.8 per cent decline in liquid assets in 2011, combined with a 4.1 per cent increase in real estate holdings, were stronger than Canada’s national averages of 2.6 per cent and 3.8 per cent respectively. This suggests that Montreal is recovering from the recession; unclear information appeared Monday.

Here’s the lesson I take from these corrections:

1. Check the numbers again. Every name and number should be checked twice.

2. Use common sense. The number of Jews correction was a book review that suggested there were 10 million Jews living in New York City in the 1920s. If that seems high to you, it should be checked. Same with the duelling salary figures.

3. And on the example sent to us by our reader, do the math yourself (as the readers will) and use a calculator. If you are going to give a list of numbers, fractions etc., make sure it is right.

 

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