NYT needs to install a "math checker" on every copy editor's desk
May 27th, 2007 by JTJ

This weekend, friend-of-the-IAJ Joe Traub sent the following to the editor of the New York Times.  Here's the story Joe is talking about: “White House….

To the Editor:

The headline on page 1 on May 26 states
“White House Said to Debate '08 Cut in Troops by 50%”
The article reports a possible reduction to 100,000 troops
from 146,000. Thats 31.5%, not 50%. NPR's Morning Edition
picked up the story from the NYT and also reported 50%

Joseph F. Traub
The writer is a Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University

The headline error is bad enough (it's only in the hed, not not in the story) — and should be a huge embarrassment to the NYT.  But the error gets compounded because while the Times no longer sets the agenda for the national discussion, it is still thought of (by most?) as the paper of record.  Consequently, as other colleagues have pointed out, the reduction percentage gets picked up by other journalists who don't bother to do the math (or who cannot do the math.)
See, for example:
* CBS News — Troop Retreat In '08?” — (This video has a shot of the NYT story even though the percentage is not mentioned.  Could it be that the TV folks don't think viewers can do the arithmetic?)
(NB: We could not yet find on the NPR site the transcript of the radio story that picked up the 50 percent error.  But run a Google search with “cut in Troops by 50%” and note the huge number of bloggers who also went with the story without doing the math.)

Colleague Steve Doig has queried the reporter of the piece, David Sanger, asking if the mistake is that of the NYT or the White House.  No answer yet received, but Doig later commented: “Sanger's story did talk about reducing brigades from 20 to 10. That's
how they'll justify the “50% reduction” headline, I guess, despite the
clear reference higher up to cutting 146,000 troops to 100,000.”

Either way, it is a serious blunder of a fundamental sort on an issue most grave.  It should have been caught, but then most journalists are WORD people and only word people, we guess.

We would also point out the illogical construction that the NYT uses consistently in relaying statistical change over time.  To wit: “… could lower troop levels by the midst of the 2008 presidential election to roughly 100,000, from about 146,000…”  We wince. 

English is read from left to right.  Most English calendars and horizontal timelines are read from left to right.  When writing about statistical change, the same convention should be followed: oldest dates and data precedes newest or future dates and data.  Therefore, this should best be written: “…could lower troop levels from about 146,000 to roughly 100,000 by the midst of the 2008 presidential election.”

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