I admit it — I get unreasonably cranky when I see sloppy, lazy or just plain bad business/financial reporting.
It goes back to my roots as a business journalist. I spent a lot of time making sure any estimates, figures, numbers or statistics I referenced were a) correct; and b) explained in as much detail as possible for general audiences.
While general-audience business journalism has historically been full of errors, false comparisons and mistakes (usually because these reporters come from J-school, not B-school), it seems to be getting worse. Yes, I’m sure news-org consolidation and downsizing has something to do with it.
But I was hit with two typical errors recently, and I have to vent.
Error 1: Not All Dollars Are Created Equal
I’m living in California’s Central Coast area now. And not to out any local media groups, but there was recent reporting on a reservoir’s water supply. So far, so good. Water’s always in the news here.
The local reporter took it a step further though, and said this particular project was built in 1957 for $5 million — what a deal that was! …And they left it at that.
Okay, if you’d going to reference past dollar figures, BRING THEM TO CURRENT VALUE! Annual inflation is a real thing, so give your audience an apples-to-apples comparison.
It’s easy. Heck, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has an online inflation calculator.
Spending about 6 seconds there shows us $5 million in 1957 is equivalent to about $41.5 million today. Still probably a deal for a water reservoir, but now at least there’s a valid basis for comparison.
Error 2: Statistics are Slippery Things
For this next example, I’ll name names because they’re national and they should be able to take criticism. It’s NPR.
First, they were covering a sad, even tragic, topic: suicide. The reporting focused on Japan’s suicide culture, and how suicide is often seen an an honorable way out of dishonorable actions or circumstances.
Realize that I have great empathy for the issue of suicide. I don’t want to be perceived as being insensitive.
However, the reporter led with the statement: “Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the United States. More than 30,000 people a year kill themselves in Japan.”
If I’m a casual listener, I might have missed the fact they just compared an apple to an orange. Someone could infer the US has about 15,000 suicides annually, since that’s half the Japanese number just mentioned (or another way: 30,000 is twice as large as 15,000).
But the RATE is different from the total NUMBER — especially in a country as large as the US (about 316 million people), versus Japan (about 128 million people).
This type of reporting opens the door for that same casual listener to conclude (incorrectly) if the US is only looking at about 15,000 to 16,000 suicides a year, the problem isn’t so bad.
The real numbers are far more disturbing for Americans. Yes, Japan tragically recorded about 30,000 suicide deaths annually… but the US reported 38,364 such deaths in 2010.
And there’s evidence the US rate is actually far higher, but under-reported by local authorities for a wide variety of reasons, including family concerns.
To close the loop, the rate is measured per 100,000 people — and according to World Health Organization estimates, Japan is actually not quite double the US suicide rate (21.7 suicides per 100,000 people versus 12 suicides per 100,000… and climbing for the US).
Even more depressingly, Greenland, South Korea and Lithuania have truly horrifying rates (but that’s a separate story).
Again, it’s a sad topic, but this also means there’s even more reason to make sure your figures and statistics are carefully vetted and put into proper context.
In doing the basic research for these numbers, there’s still validity to the story about Japan’s cultural view of this type of death, and the fledgling movement to change attitudes.
But another, larger story about America’s rarely discussed suicide culture is still waiting for a national stage, a national dialogue, a national discussion.
That’s just one reason why facts, figures and statistics are incredibly important to get right.