One of The Globe and Mail's greatest not-so-secret weapon is its readers. Highly intelligent, leaders in their communities, they expect the newspaper and news site to be accurate, fair and comprehensive.
One such reader is Bruce Montador, a senior fellow with the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Dr. Montador has a PhD in mathematics and took economics at the doctoral level. "I am a bit of a numbers guy," he said modestly.
He was puzzled recently by a story on retailing in major cities that included Statistics Canada details and a chart on the growth in population density. The article referred to the ten most populated areas in Canada. Dr. Montador looked at the numbers in the chart and calculated the average as The Globe reporter did. The reporter made a simple mistake typing in one wrong number and neither she nor her editors caught that.
But Dr. Montador did. "Under normal circumstances, the average cannot grow faster than the all the components," he said. He kindly noted that this can be challenging for reporters "who have to know a bit about lots of different areas… However the advantage of numbers is that at one level they are easier to check!"
He pointed out another mathematical concern that he sees in the media. "You should make sure journalists know the difference between average and median. This links to all the concerns about income inequality and the 1 per cent. In recent years the average income has often risen to a reasonable extent, but the median income (the one defined as that level where half the population earns more, the other half less) has not. This happens when most of the increase in national income goes to the better off, in extreme cases, to the 1 per cent. In such cases, what does it mean to say the ordinary Canadian is better off? (Note that the difference between average and median income growth is particularly important in the U.S. but the principle is one that applies generally.)"
Not only is there confusion about economic terms from time to time, getting numbers wrong, including dates, is the second most frequent source of corrections in this newspaper. In this example, although the reporter checked and re-checked the math, she made a simple calculation error. In many other corrections, I'm afraid, those numbers aren't always double-checked.
The reporter sent a note of thanks to Dr. Montador and a correction was printed in the paper and appended to the online article, which was also fixed.
It is great to hear from readers who notice errors and want to ensure that the record is accurate.
If you would like to comment on this or any other journalistic issue, please do so in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org