This article was last modified on February 4, 2006.


Fun With Numbers

Time after time, I have explored the media and language. How are words mis-used? How does this misuse change our perceptions of reality? Check out "Who or What is a Philosopher?" or "Media Bias" or, for one example, "Is American Terrorism Working?". Today, I’m going to explore the media’s use of numbers, which is even more distorted and easily distortable. Two examples.

The Most Dangerous Place for a Journalist, 2005

The tally of journalists deaths came out a few days ago. In 2005, 47 journalists were killed in the line of duty. The largest number in any country is 22 – Iraq. The next closest is the Phillippines, with 4. Conclusion: Iraq must be really, really dangerous because the number of journalists killed there is considerably higher.

True, Iraq is a very dangerous place. But are we doing tallies straight-forward or per capita? We’re doing them straight-forward, with just flat numbers. Per capita, as in what percent of total journalists in the region are killed, is not even mentioned in the article. Maybe Iraq is the most dangerous place for a journalist per capita, I have no idea. But maybe it is the Phillippines or somewhere else entirely.

Let us say there were 10 journalists in the Phillippines in 2005 and 4 were killed – you would have a 40% chance of being killed as a journalist. Those odds are not very good. Let us say 1000 journalists were in Iraq. You would only have a 2.2% chance of being killed. Not great, but much better than the Phillippines. Granted, I am inventing these numbers and am likely way off. But the bottom line is that unless the numbers are put in perspective, they don’t mean nearly as much.

The Unemployment Rate

During the Clinton Administration, the unemployment rate at one point dropped to 5.6% and was hailed as a great achievement. At the time this was seen as "full employment" (assuming that some teenagers, college students, elderly and others simply will never be in the job market). Yet, during the Bush II Administration, when the rate was 5.6 the numbers were seen as disastrous. (On a side note, the unemployment rate in November 2005 was only 5.0%) How can the same number mean two different things?

One possible answer is liberal bias in the media. While Al Franken’s book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" does a fine job of debunking the liberal media myth, he himself is liberal and may be lying. (Personally, I think any media that attacks Clinton for his personal life and lets it slide when Bush does unconstitutional things cannot really be called liberal.) Maybe the journalists thought adding the words “unbelievably low” or “disastrously high” would alter our perceptions of the number, even if it is the same number. And they would be right if this was their goal, because besides economists, who really has a clue what a good number regarding the economy is?

I think it is also important to look past the number. Does the number really mean anything? Or is it just an easy out, a figure to fall back on? 5.6% was NOT the same in the 1990s as it is today, whether or not it is the same number. In America today, fewer jobs have pensions than 10 years ago. Layoffs have forced mill and factory workers with union benefits to move to non-union jobs like Wal-Mart. In short, the number only gives you a QUANTITY rather than a QUALITY.

Think about this: lower paying jobs mean you will be giving the government less money in taxes than you did previously. Less taxes, less budget to work with. At the same time, if you work for a non-Union company, you probably don’t have the health care you had for the factory. Wal-Mart relies on the government to pay for their employees’ health care (because if you can’t get it through work, you must enroll in a state program or have none at all). What happens when you pay less money into the state and at the same time demand more money from them in assistance? Answer: the state runs out of money.

Conclusion: The same number of people were employed during both administrations. But one of them had jobs people could retire comfortably with, the other is moving closer all the time to turning our country into a bankrupt welfare state. Hence, 5.6 can be both wonderful and disastrous.

More Thoughts on Journalists in Peril

In the first section, I pointed out that the number of dead journalists is only a small part of the story. The percentage of total journalists would be needed to make a better assessment. But as pointed out in the second section, statistics are just as misleading as flat numbers.

James Skemp points out to me that if only one journalist were in a country covering a war, his death would create a 100% kill rate and his non-death would create a 0% kill rate. So, the percentage might be entirely misleading. We do not know if this one journalist is in a safe region and was very unlucky or if he is in a very deadly region and many more journalists would be killed if they had been in the area.

The size of the country is also something to take into account. How many journalists (or any profession) die in Rhode Island each year as opposed to Texas? My assumption would be that more die in Texas, because the geographic area is much larger. But because twice as many people die in Texas does not make it twice as deadly.

The point to take home with you is this: always look for the big picture. One number or group of numbers means nothing. One statistic means nothing. Put it in context. We can conclude that Iraq is dangerous not because of the journalist deaths, but by comparing this with overall civilians and military deaths — this will create a more accurate picture of the turmoil there. Fewer than four journalists died in Sudan and the Darfur region in Africa — but if the genocide there is any indication, this hardly means that you would be safe as a journalist in Sudan. It more likely means no one has any desire to cover Sudan. But that’s a completely different article.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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