Newspaper Nitpickery

Today is one of those days when the world seems to be collapsing: Israel, Iraq, India. The newspapers are full of foreboding news. And putting out a really good newspaper every day is an incredibly hard thing to do. Personally, I think the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are both really good newspapers. So, in offering the following nitpicks, I feel doubly guilty — a) because there is so much troubling news; and b) because it is so hard to convey that news well.

That said, the sloppiness in the Times this morning, albeit minor, was absurd.

In a short profile of Marshall Brown, an internet evangelist who is wiring NYC’s parks for wi-fi service, the reporter describes interviewing him “in the art gallery of the landmark Arsenal in Central Park at East 54th Street.” Last time I checked, the Arsenal was in fact at 64th Street; in fact, it’d be pretty hard to place any Central Park building at 54th Street since the Park itself ends at 59th Street.

Okay, you say, it’s a silly minor error, should have been caught but not worth getting bothered about.

But here’s the next sentence: “‘Probably a million people come to Central Park on a sunny summer day, and if even 1 percent of them come with wireless-capable devices, that’s a thousand people who can be connecting with our service,’ [Brown] fantasizes…”

Again, last time I checked, 1 percent of 1 million would be closer to 10,000 than 1,000. Do I care if the guy got his math wrong, doing the numbers in his head, maybe even nervous from doing an interview with a newspaper reporter? No. Everybody makes mistakes. (We’ve made tons on this blog — there’s probably a few on this very post — and some in our book too; that’s one reason, btw, why we’re issuing a revised and expanded edition in the fall.) But one job a newspaper has, among many other more difficult ones, is to not print mistakes as if they’re not mistakes. And to have many pairs of eyes read something before it’s published.

So maybe everybody involved here is just really, really bad at math (and, as evidenced by the 54th Street error, at reading maps).

Or maybe Brown didn’t get his math wrong; maybe he actually said “…that’s ten thousand people who can be connecting …,” and the reporter misheard him, and never looked at the math, and then a series of editors also never looked at the math. More often than you think, reporters simply mishear their subjects and print the wrong quote. My favorite mistake of this type also occurred in the Times, 13 years ago. Here’s the correction the paper published then: Because of a transmission error, an interview in the Egos & Ids column on May 16 with Mary Matalin, the former deputy manager of the Bush campaign who is a co-host of a new talk show on CNBC, quoted her incorrectly on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. She said he was “sui generis,” not “sweet, generous.”

There’s also a table in the Times‘s business section today showing the minute-by-minute Dow activity yesterday, and the numbers on the chart are simply wrong. But enough of beating up on my favorite paper.

The Journal today makes an error of omission that probably only about 10 people care about. Every Friday, the Journal publishes its list of best-selling books. It has become a nice Friday morning ritual for me to wake up, open the door, and find that list to see where Freakonomics is resting. Last week, we were still No. 1 on the paper’s business list. This week, however, there’s no list at all. I’m guessing this wasn’t an accident. I’m guessing that the Journal is hurting so badly for ad pages that they’ve had to cut content, and — well, like I said, there’s probably only 10 people who care that the best-seller list isn’t there today, but I happen to be one of them.

Elsewhere in the Journal, there’s a really interesting (unsigned)commentary about a phenomenon I’ve long noticed: how negatively the American businessperson is portrayed on TV shows. I used to watch a lot of Law & Order, which is perhaps the worst offender. On Law & Order, the typical businessman is corrupt, bullheaded, and usually a murderer. But Law & Order is not alone. According a new study by the Business & Media Institute (okay, okay, I’m guessing they’re maybe a tiny bit biased), if you use TV dramas as your measuring stick, then “businessmen [are] a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob.” As the Journal writes, “Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.”


britchick

If he did actually say 1,000 rather than 10,000, is it really up to a reporter or editor to correct it? Altering quotes to make someone say what you think they meant to say sounds like a bad idea to me.

prosa

Printing without comment the claim that one million people come to Central Park on a sunny summer day is itself somewhat questionable. If there is any way to measure the number of people entering the park through all its entrances with even the remotest bit of accuracy, I certainly can't imagine what it might be. True, Brown did use the word "probably," but I still think that the editors should have been a little more cautionary.
With regard to Law & Order, there's another, rather more obvious inaccuracy when it comes to the portrayal of criminals on the show; Steve Sailer and some other bloggers have commented on it. I don't care to say what it is, but you should be able to figure it out.

Mango

I have to take some issue with the quotes in the last two sentences, there.

-> Businessmen are portrayed as greater threats than terrorists, gangs, or the mob
-> Businessmen are portrayed negatively 77% of the time

So, logically, they have discovered that terrorists, gangs, and the mob are portrayed positively in more than 23% of episodes?

bgriffs

"(We've made tons on this blog—there's probably a few on this very post—and some in our book too; that's one reason, btw, why we're issuing a revised and expanded edition in the fall.)"

I'm sure that there are a Lott of reasons for the revised edition:)

Toast1185

I think britchick is right. I've never worked for a newspaper, but I know I've never sen [sic] an acknowledgment of the mistake of a quote in a newspaper before. However, I have been interviewed before and I do know that depending on how important you are journalists may mangle your words around and just maintain the spirit to make it fit.

Stephen J. Dubner

To Britchick and Toast1185: It's true that you don't massage quotes. But if I'm interviewing someone who mentions a certain company or country or dollar amt. *by mistake* (which happens all the time), it's common courtesy, and wisdom, to ask them if they meant to say what you think they meant to say, and correct it on the spot. Or, if you don't correct it on the spot for whatever reason, acknowledge the mistake in the writing of the article, e.g.: "We're thrilled to have entered the Iranian economy," said Mr. Buffett -- who, surely, meant to say the "Israeli" economy. In the case I cite above, there were plenty of options, but the worst of them was to print the mistake and not acknowledge it's a mistake. All that accomplishes is making your subject look stupid -- which, in this context, I sincerely doubt was the intention.

scotta2

not exactly on point, but.....

assuming the following statement is true:

"Free market theory depends on people being physically and intellectually mobile in order to avoid poverty. The model predicts poverty for people that can't do that."

and...

your analysis is correct that successful education depends more on who the child is (or parents are) than what ciriculum or environment he/she is put in...

then...

what is the "freakanomics" prescription for improving the failing educational system and, therefore, the economic prospects for the poor (minority underclass)?

starfish

I hate to be the first to point this out, but it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that businessmen are a greater threat to our society than terrorists, gangs or the mob -- in terms of sheer numbers, if not proportionately. Has any terrorist group, street gang or organized crime family ever done anything remotely as terrible as -- to take just one example -- Bhopal?

byomtov

The Business and Media Institute needs to calm down.

A disproportionate number of people of all types and professions (except law enforcement) are going to be portrayed negatively on Law and Order, and other crime shows.

That's what they're about - criminals.

mathking

Good comment byomtov. If you want to see a profession that is really shown in a bad light on Law and Order, try teachers. Or college professors. As a teacher, I still like the show because it is entertaining. And I recognize that it is fiction about criminals.

huntgrunt

The sui generis thing is priceless. As I recall, there was another wonderful correction in the NYT a few years back. In an obituary, a female friend was quoted calling the deceased "a friend and a lover." The correction noted she really called him "a friend and a lover of art and culture" or somesuch.

funkyj

@starfish: hear hear! While there is lots of honest and legitimate business, neocolonialism (which is organised crime on a national scale) is reponsible for much of the poverty and hatred that breeds terrorism.

Of course evil businessmen are not murderers in the traditional sense. Instead you have Enron screwing california and then screwing their own employees. I'm sure could put a price on human life and then figure out how many murders the Enron heist was equivalent to. If you read _Collapse_ (Jared Diamond) he describe how mining companies game the US regulatory legal system time and time again so that the public is left with polluted lands and the government must do the cleanup or noone does.

doncoffin

I have planned, for years (and so far have merely gathered scattered information), a study titled "Class Bias in American Detective Fiction." The thesis is that murderers in fiction come from much higher socio-economic groups than they do in reality.

The reason for that is clear, isn't it? How entertaining--in print, on TV, in movies--would your "typical" murderer (or thief, etc.) be to read about or see? NOT. The necessity in fiction is to create situations that have dramatic interest, and that does not mean mirror reality.

I'd have been stunned to discover that murderers, thieves, etc., on a TV show did have the same socio-economic characteristics as murderers, thieves, etc., do in "real life."

It's not, I think, that the intent is to depict businesspeople as evil, but to find interesting evil people to depict.

asherman

"neocolonialism (which is organised crime on a national scale) is reponsible for much of the poverty and hatred that breeds terrorism"

Are you saying that poverty didn't exist before large multinational corporations came along?

The poverty that you're talking about is caused by bad government, not by capitalism. Capitalism is a huge wealth creator. Most poor countries are poor because they don't have systems that allow their own people to go out and create wealth.

It's easier to scapegoat foreigners - that's why the 'hatred that breeds terrorism' exists. But it's local governments that can and must change things, by following international best practices in developing legal, regulatory and financial systems that allow wealth to be created.

britchick

If he did actually say 1,000 rather than 10,000, is it really up to a reporter or editor to correct it? Altering quotes to make someone say what you think they meant to say sounds like a bad idea to me.

prosa

Printing without comment the claim that one million people come to Central Park on a sunny summer day is itself somewhat questionable. If there is any way to measure the number of people entering the park through all its entrances with even the remotest bit of accuracy, I certainly can't imagine what it might be. True, Brown did use the word "probably," but I still think that the editors should have been a little more cautionary.
With regard to Law & Order, there's another, rather more obvious inaccuracy when it comes to the portrayal of criminals on the show; Steve Sailer and some other bloggers have commented on it. I don't care to say what it is, but you should be able to figure it out.

Mango

I have to take some issue with the quotes in the last two sentences, there.

-> Businessmen are portrayed as greater threats than terrorists, gangs, or the mob
-> Businessmen are portrayed negatively 77% of the time

So, logically, they have discovered that terrorists, gangs, and the mob are portrayed positively in more than 23% of episodes?

bgriffs

"(We've made tons on this blog-there's probably a few on this very post-and some in our book too; that's one reason, btw, why we're issuing a revised and expanded edition in the fall.)"

I'm sure that there are a Lott of reasons for the revised edition:)

Toast1185

I think britchick is right. I've never worked for a newspaper, but I know I've never sen [sic] an acknowledgment of the mistake of a quote in a newspaper before. However, I have been interviewed before and I do know that depending on how important you are journalists may mangle your words around and just maintain the spirit to make it fit.

Stephen J. Dubner

To Britchick and Toast1185: It's true that you don't massage quotes. But if I'm interviewing someone who mentions a certain company or country or dollar amt. *by mistake* (which happens all the time), it's common courtesy, and wisdom, to ask them if they meant to say what you think they meant to say, and correct it on the spot. Or, if you don't correct it on the spot for whatever reason, acknowledge the mistake in the writing of the article, e.g.: "We're thrilled to have entered the Iranian economy," said Mr. Buffett -- who, surely, meant to say the "Israeli" economy. In the case I cite above, there were plenty of options, but the worst of them was to print the mistake and not acknowledge it's a mistake. All that accomplishes is making your subject look stupid -- which, in this context, I sincerely doubt was the intention.