By Mervin Block, Special to RTDNA
(Editor's Note: Mervin Block has recently written a new book, "Weighing Anchors" and today's blog appears in advance in the 2012 Elections in an effort to help journalists make sense of some common number and math mistakes in reporting.)
Elections are fast approaching, and the tempo of poll-taking is picking up. So is the reporting of polls on newscasts. But many anchors and reporters -- jinxed perhaps by a poll-tergeist -- confuse "percent" and "percentage point.”
Even "60 Minutes" has confused “percent” and “percentage point.” Let’s look at some of their mistakes and see how they should have been corrected:
“He [an economist] says the average French citizen hands over fully 46 percent of all his income to the government in all kinds of taxes. The average American, he says, hands over just 30 percent. That’s more than 15 percent less.”
Whoa! And woe unto those of us who trip over numbers. The difference between what Americans pay, 30 percent, and what the French pay, 46 percent, is 16 percentage points. And the American payment is about 33 percent less, not 15 percent.
The last sentence of the excerpt presents another problem. With more and less so close, it’s hard for a listener to get the point. But the numbers in that script aren’t its only problem. The words also need work. The script says the average American pays the government just 30 percent of his income. Just 30 percent? Just or unjust, let the number speak for itself: 30 percent will do. As for “fully 46 percent,” fully is fluffy.
The script also reported that the director of a French orchestra said the government provided “a full 20 percent” of his budget. I don’t want to fulminate about full and fully, but they suggest that the writer was straining to build up the amount.
Another error: the script went on to say that a French actress in the 60-percent tax bracket must pay an extra wealth tax that boosts her tax rate to 70 percent. The script called the jump to 70 percent from 60 percent an increase of “10 percent.” Wrong. It’s an increase of 10 percentage points--or 16.7 percent. Although the script is not new, the same mistakes are common across the land.
The script appears at greater length in my new book, "Weighing Anchors.”
If you’re an innumerate, welcome to the club. Many of us need to review a high school textbook that explores percentages. And we all need to keep in mind some advice in the newsletter Copyediting. It offers five rules from Edward MacNeal, author of Mathsemantics: Making Numbers Talk Sense:
• Mistrust all percentages over 100. Don’t use the word times with comparative modifiers, such as more, larger, better, less, fewer, smaller and worse.
• Double-check comparisons containing words like tripling and threefold.
• Avoid mixing fractions, percentages and decimals within [a script], and never mix them within a single comparison.
• Mistrust percentages added to other percentages.
"Copyediting" also passes along a passel of other tips on percents. Two of them:
• A tripling is an increase of 200 percent, not 300 percent. A quadrupling is an increase of 300 percent. [Doubling is a 100 percent increase.]
• A phrase like six times fewer than is absurd.
To see to it that your math doesn’t do a number on you, make sure someone else in your newsroom checks your math. And, no, that isn’t called aftermath.
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