When journalists forget they’re innumerate

By Felix Salmon
May 21, 2009

David Evans, the style guru for the Reuters commentary group, just sent out a note on numbers; its first paragraph should be seared into all journalists’ minds.

Always check any numbers in a story, and then recheck them. Are they internally consistent? If a number rises to a new number then is the second number larger than the first? Check that the units of measurement are not out by a factor of 10, or 100, or 1,000. Try to appreciate the underlying logic of the numbers rather than accepting them at face value. Ask yourself if the numbers are feasible and realistic. Remember that a journalist plus a calculator often equals mistake.

Journalistic innumeracy is a scourge of journalism for two reasons — firstly that journalists are innumerate, but more dangerously because journalists either forget or never knew in the first place that they are innumerate. It’s a form of overconfidence bias, and it’s highly corrosive. If we all try to remember every day that we’re all prone to making mistakes, especially when it comes to numbers, a huge number of boneheaded errors are likely to be avoided.

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