Don’t count on reporters to work well with numbers

I can't speak for all people who enter the journalism profession. If they are anything like me, however, they likely tend to hurry too much, not review their work as carefully as they should, and miss glaring typographical errors (my apologies for last week's error-ridden column). Journalists, thus show their humanity day after day, week after week.

 Also, if other reporters share some of the same qualities as me, they will admit that one of the reasons they aren't designing robots that land on Mars or teaching quantum physics is they, like me, are generally lousy at math.

Thus, a career based on working with words rather than numbers seems tailor fit.

There's just one problem. Journalists have to work with numbers all of the time. Some of it is fairly simple stuff – for example, did you know it takes 14 minutes for a signal from the news Mar rover Curiosity to reach Earth?

This is what I'd call "safe" reporting involving math. Even if I've screwed up my facts in the above paragraph, it's not going to affect your life.

It's the complicated stuff that can lead reporters like me to writing stuff that just doesn't add up. This can have dire consequences in a world where information is instantly spread far and wide via facebook, twitter and the internet, which too many people believe is never wrong.

It can also lead to a willful misrepresentation of the facts. Say I write a story about President Obama's legislation calling for a tax increase on some people and not others. Let's say I really screw up in my interpretation of the affects of such legislation.

Boom. Suddenly both proponents and opponents of the president's legislation spread my mistake as the gospel truth.

Something like that is happening right now. And it indirectly has involved our own U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.

In late July, the Senate held symbolic votes on a pair of high-profile tax bills with important implications for the November election. Senators narrowly rejected a Republican-backed extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts in favor of a Democratic proposal that would preserve lower rates for taxable income below $200,000 per individual, or $250,000 per family, while allowing reductions in tax rates on income above those thresholds to expire.

Unfortunately, even though the debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts has been a key point of contention between the parties since Obama took office, many reporters still haven't learned how to accurately describe the competing proposals to their readers.

The Columbia Journalism Review uses, as an example, an Associated Press story on the Senate vote by Alan Fram that ran in the Nashua Telegraph and Concord Monitor in late July that incorrectly suggested that no tax cuts would be extended for the wealthy under the Democratic bill.

In his lede, Fram wrote, "Democrats pushed a yearlong extension of tax cuts for all but the highest-earning Americans through the Senate on Wednesday (July 25)." He later described the GOP proposal as "a rival Republican package that would have included the best-off in the tax reductions," again suggesting that the wealthy would be excluded, and claimed that "the $250 billion Democratic measure would extend tax cuts in 2013 for millions of Americans…[b]ut it would deny those reductions to individuals making over $200,000 yearly and couples earning at least $250,000."

Why is this wrong? Because under the Democratic proposal, all Americans would still pay lower rates on their first $200,000 (or $250,000) in taxable income. And up to that level, individuals who earn more would actually see a greater financial benefit.

As analysts from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted when reviewing a similar proposal back in 2010, "high-income people actually receive much larger benefits in dollar terms from the so-called 'middle-class tax cuts' than middle-class people do."

The YG Network, which describes itself as "dedicated to supporting center-right policies and the efforts of policymakers who fight for those policies," has released a You Tube video that describes this legislation – specifically S 3412 – as "Obama's tax hike."

The video's narrator notes, "Liberals don't understand how to create jobs and fix our economy. We need Rep. Kristi Noem to keep fighting for small business. Tell her to vote for jobs by rejecting S 3412, the Obama-Reid-Pelosi tax hike."

In other words, The YG Network wants you to tell Kristi to vote against a piece of legislation that likely may be beneficial to nearly everyone. It is easy, however, to paint this bill as a job killer because that just goes right along with its misinterpretation. By reporters and politicians of every stripe.

Brendan Nyan, in his Columbia Journalism Review article, "The press botches the tax debate – again," notes how journalists just can't seem to present this story in the proper framework.

One problem, notes New York magazine's Dan Amira, is that President Obama himself has reinforced the misleading framing in describing his proposal. During a speech at the National Urban League Convention in Louisiana late last month, for instance, Obama said, "Just a few hours ago, the Senate moved forward a bill that we had promoted to keep middle-class tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans next year.

Conversely, Republicans who support extending all the Bush tax cuts have no incentive to correct Obama or the Democrats when they exaggerate the extent to which taxes would be increased on wealthy Americans.

Too many journalists don't understand the tax code or other aspects of budget or fiscal policy especially well, according to Nyan. He adds, "Moreover, they have little incentive to add nuance or detail to their stories given the overwhelming priority given to dramatizing political conflict in entertaining ways."

So, as you pick up a newspaper, or watch cable news, or surf the internet, prepare for plenty of political drama.

If you happen to come across a political story involving numbers, however, be sure to personally analyze the all of the facts and figures.

There's a good chance, because of reporter error, that the numbers don't add up – to the delight of both Republicans and Democrats.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>