What journalists write when they encounter known unknowns.

Media criticism.
March 24 2011 6:56 PM

Numbers Are Hard To Come By, Part 2

More about what journalists write when they encounter known unknowns.

Numbers Illustration.

Everybody cuts corners. Take me, for example. Today I could be writing a critique of the Libyan war coverage. I could be assessing the disaster reporting from Japan or essaying on the difficulties of getting the Syrian uprising story.

But instead of doing anything ambitious or worthy of your time, I'm going to rewrite (I mean update!) a piece I wrote in November, "Numbers Are Hard To Come By."

On the chance that you missed that piece, it's about how news outlets habitually cut corners in their reporting when they can't find solid data that support their theses but still want to run the story. They grab the nearest available—or most frequently repeated figure—and couch it with the phrase "numbers are hard to come by."

This sort of number-fudging would be praise-worthy if the next sentence out of reporters' word processors was "And because there are no good numbers, we won't bother to generalize on the topic." But I've yet to see a reporter do this, if only because it's too easy to build an audience-pleasing story on soft numbers.

If numbers are so squishy that they require this sort of disclaimer, journalists shouldn't cite them at all. Or, if they insist, the disclaimer should read, "We have no idea what the hell we are talking about." Almost anything would better prepare news consumers for the dollop of dung they're about to be served.

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One of the reasons that so many numbers are, as they say, hard to come by is that in so many cases, nobody has the necessary incentive to properly tabulate them. (If this topic makes your bunnies hop, read Max Singer's "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers," Public Interest, Spring 1971; and Peter Reuter's splendid companion piece, "The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers," Public Interest, Spring 1984.)

I have no confidence that my ridicule will break the bad habits of my colleagues at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and other outlets. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't indulge one of my own bad habits of squeezing out easy sequels to previous columns.

So here goes—the recent things in news for which the numbers are hard to come by:

—The number of Japanese elderly living in evacuation centers (believed by some aid workers to be in the majority); Thomson Reuter AlertNet, March 22, 2011

—The number of kidnappings in Mexico ("believed to be in the thousands"), Bakersfield Californian, March 21, 2011

—The number of birds killed by feral cats in Stratford, Ontario (across Canada "untold millions"), Beacon Herald, March 19, 2011

—The number of Christians in Iraq ("as few as 150,000"), Herald(Glasgow, Scotland), March 16, 2011

—The number of Frenchmen living in London ("up to 400,000"), the Economist, March 24, 2011

—The number of guests caught bringing drugs onto cruise ships (one cruise line says 127 last year out of a million-plus), AOL Travel News, Feb. 17, 2011

—The number of sexual crimes involving teachers and students, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 16, 2011

—The number of former homeowners who lost a house to foreclosure or a short sale and have become renters (a "majority"), Contra Costa Times, Feb. 10, 2011

—The number of Down syndrome married couples (one source says it's on the rise), Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 10, 2011

—Number of science fairs (on the local level, one source says, "it's on the decline"), New York Times, Feb. 4, 2011

—Number of microcredit clients ("over 600 million"), Atlantic online, Jan. 28, 2011

—Number of threats against members of Congress ("Many members of Congress feel threats against them have increased in recent times"), Wall Street Journal, Jan. 9, 2011

—Number of video porn companies that have "retrenched or disappeared" (no estimate offered), Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jan. 8, 2011

—Numbers of Christians who have left Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine (yes, the copy says "Palestine") in the last 20 years ("hundreds of thousands"), Channel 4 News, U.K., Dec. 21, 2010

—Number of rescissions ("Consumer and industry lawyers said rescissions have risen"), Bloomberg News, Dec. 16, 2011,

—Number of e-books sold (no number estimated), Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 2010

The diplomatic cables liberated by WikiLeaks prove that journalists aren't the only ones dispensing hard-to-come-by fudge. In this cable, the State Department writes that numbers describing Russian arms sales to China and India "are hard to come by." But they're also said to be "growing."

***

Hard To Come By would be a great title for a porn video. Send mildly salacious porn titles based on the news (no hard-core!) to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Just so you know, my Twitter feed is G-rated. (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.)

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