Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 18, 2011

The Sad State of Media Reporting and Basic Math

Filed under: media reporting — Stuart Robbins @ 8:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

This is a quickie post. It’s also a minor rant.

This evening, I was reading the 668 headlines that had accumulated in my RSS feeder over the past 10ish hours. I skim over most and click on the 1 out of maybe every 25-50 stories that interest me to then read while eating dinner. (That’s 2-4% of the stories.)

If there are a lot to read at once, such as tonight, I go through each source individually. ABC news is usually first after I check blogs and Apple rumor sites. ABC had a story headlined, “Woman’s $200,000 Cell Bill No Mistake,” and the short summary was, “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.” I was minorly interested because I’m sure we all remember reading those stories of people with crazy kids who over-txt or whatever. I clicked. But before clicking, I did the math with a calculator to figure out what she’d still have to pay. 88% discount on $200,000 should mean she pays 12%, or $24,000. That’s still a lot. Click the story and find out she has to pay $2,500. Um, 2500/200000 = 0.0125, or 1.25% of the original bill, meaning the company gave her a 98.75% discount.

I shook my head and scoffed at another bad story from ABC.

Then I got to the Washington Post’s RSS feed and saw the SAME STORY. This time, the headline of their story was ABC’s subheader: “Florida woman shocked by $200,000 cell phone bill; company agrees to 88 percent discount.”

Um … I clicked. Read the exact same story. Came to the bottom and the byline was the Associated Press. Meaning that the AP sent out this story, all these news sources picked up on it and just ran it without thinking, likely without actually reading. The actual original story from a local news station (before AP picked it up) was about how the person contacted their local public help guy who became a consumer advocate on the woman’s behalf. I actually really like those kinds of stories. The original story also had nothing to do with percentages, so it was all the AP who added in that math problem.

Now, I’m okay with some basic, stupid math errors. Likely the person did 2500/200000, saw 0.0125 as the result, and then did mental math of 1-0.125 with the decimal point moved over one. Okay. We all make basic mistakes sometimes. I have an issue when this basic math mistake is repeated over and over again in major news outlets in a story that is 131 words long and takes 30 seconds to read for me, and I’m a slow reader.

As I mentioned back in my post about Dark of the Moon movie, it’s just lazy, and it insults the intelligence of the audience.

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