What journalists write when they encounter a known unknown.

Media criticism.
Nov. 5 2010 5:02 PM

Numbers Are Hard To Come By

What journalists write when they encounter a known unknown.

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In 2002, while speaking to reporters, Zen master Donald H. Rumsfeld noted that we are bedeviled by "known unknowns."

Master Rumsfeld wasn't talking about the exasperating job of journalism. He was riffing off of a pressman's question about Iraq's willingness to supply terrorists with chemical and biological weapons. But he could have been talking about the work reporters do. Every day, they bruise their brains on known unknowns—news tips,  hunches, half-formed story ideas, scraps of information, and soft rumblings in the distance—in hopes of converting them into solid news stories, or what Rumsfeld calls "known knowns."

But because reporters have only 24 hours a day to perform their labors, they frequently rely on a fudge factor to mask their failure to transform a known unknown into a known known. They employ the catchphrase, "While accurate numbers are hard to come by. …"

Reporters so depend on this phrase that if you type it—or a variant of it, such as "precise numbers are hard to find"—into Nexis, your computer will catch fire. At the very least, your Nexis screen will beg you to refine your search terms to reduce the returns from the many thousands to the hundreds.

Not every journalist who uses the phrase should be shot. For example, a reporter has my blessing to use it when he needs to acknowledge that the precise number of illegal immigrants is not known because, after all, illegal immigrants refuse to sit still for a census. Likewise, a story about the size of the historical cinema box office can get away with using it because accurate records weren't kept in the old days. But even then, he should say, "The numbers haven't been tabulated" instead of they're "hard to find," because "hard to find" implies that if he had only looked harder, he would have found them.

But these are the exceptions. Usually when a journalist drops the phrase into his story it's because 1) he couldn't be bothered to find the number; 2) nobody has tabulated the number because nobody cares, and if the reporter writes that, he'll undermine the thesis of his piece; or 3) the story's editor insisted at the 11th hour on a number and the fudge phrase was the only thing that could be plugged into the hole.

Numbers are hard to come by pops up in lots of bogus trend stories, that genre of journalistic fraud that I've savaged repeatedly in this column. In bogus trend pieces, the phrase is almost a "tell," signaling that the publication knows that it's guilty of trying to document something as a trend when only the loosest anecdotal evidence exists to support the idea. In nonbogus trend stories, journalists use the phrase to caulk over gaps in their reporting.

Among the things whose enumeration was too difficult to pin down in 2010 were wood-fired hot-tub sales figures (New York Times, Oct. 21), the global sales of video games (New York Times, Sept. 20), dollars spent on tailgate parties (Kansas City Star, Sept. 25), the number of golfers on high-school teams (Boston Globe, April 15), the size of Brazil's acai export market (New York Times, Feb. 24), and the number of 3-D cinema screens (USA Today, Feb. 2).

Going back to 2009, the press used the dodge while discussing the number of flip-flop sandals produced (International Herald Tribune, Dec. 9); the size of the e-book reader business (New York Times, Oct. 7); sales of Nancy Drew books (New York Times, July 19); the cost of building transmission lines for wind farms east of the Rockies (Chicago Tribune, May 5); the size of Hispanic representation in corporate boardrooms, senior management, and economic-development organizations (Plain Dealer, April 19); the number of fishermen who have left the occupation (USA Today, April 9); and the number of coffee-shop employees nationally (Boston Globe, Jan. 22).

And in 2008, it was used to couch the known unknown-ness of the declining costs of solar energy systems (New York Times, Oct. 5), the number of gelato shops in the United States (New York Times, Sept. 4), the national sales figures for gelato (Dallas Morning News, July 19), and the annual number of boogie-board and surfing accidents (Virginian-Pilot, Aug. 12).

For the purpose of an elegant finish to this piece, I wish that Nexis had revealed me as one of the guilty so I could humbly attack myself. I'm not so lucky. A handful of my Slate colleagues, however, lapsed in that direction. I am as filled with forgiveness for them as I am with relief for myself.

As journalistic ills go, this one is no cancer, but it's often a symptom of journalists who chased a story and didn't catch it.

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Thanks to reader Ian Quigley for the idea. Maybe I missed my use of the phrases. Make me honest! Fire up your Google and your Nexis, and catch me in the act. Send your findings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For unknown unknowns, see my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word unknowns in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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