Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arithmetically challenged reporters

When I was a newspaper reporter, I remember that we looked down our noses at TV reporters — they were airheads, bimbos, pretty boys (such as the one portrayed by William Hurt in Broadcast News). The reputation of radio reporters was that they worked harder for less money, but were not quite as pretty.

When driving to work this morning, the CBS (radio) news at 10am EDT was reporting the grim economic news from the latest quarter. Here’s what the article said:

The last six months were brutal. Output fell at a 6.1 percent annual rate in the January-through-March quarter after falling at a rate of 6.3 percent in last year’s fourth quarter, according to the Commerce Department. If that pace were to continue, nearly $1 trillion would be wiped out this year from the nation’s economic output of $14.2 trillion last year.
In concluding her summary, the CBS radio reporter said:
It's unusual to have two quarters of such weak economic growth.
My jaw dropped: when it comes to the economy, growth is always up, and down means “contraction.” When I got to the office, I went to the NYT website, which got it right in the breaking headline on its home page:
U.S. Economy in 2nd Straight Quarter of Steep Decline
Here in California, learning about negative numbers is a requirement for every 4th grader in the state. So do we have someone who failed 4th grade math who’s now a national news reporter?

This week our local newspaper (the Merc) and the TV stations have been leading with the news about the swine flu. One person has died in the US so far due to swine flu, which is 20% as many as those who died in the Monterey County bus rollover Tuesday.

Of course, this is not the first time that the media and the public have gotten an exaggerated sense of risks due to poor math. Here is what ABC newsman John Stossel (my favorite TV reporter) wrote two years ago:
Worry About the Right Things
By John Stossel, April 4, 2007

For the past two weeks I've written about how the media -- part of the Fear Industrial Complex -- profit by scaring us to death about things that rarely happen, like terrorism, child abductions, and shark attacks.

We do it because we get caught up in the excitement of the story. And for ratings.

Worse, because many reporters are statistically illiterate, personal-injury lawyers get us to hype risks that barely threaten people… Sometimes they even con us into scaring you about risks that don't exist at all …

Newsrooms are full of English majors who acknowledge that they are not good at math, but still rush to make confident pronouncements about a global-warming "crisis" and the coming of bird flu.

Bird flu was called the No. 1 threat to the world. But bird flu has killed no one in America, while regular flu -- the boring kind -- kills tens of thousands. New York City internist Marc Siegel says that after the media hype, his patients didn't want to hear that.

"I say, 'You need a flu shot.' You know the regular flu is killing 36,000 per year. They say, 'Don't talk to me about regular flu. What about bird flu?'"

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