The housing industry, particularly new-home construction, has seen a recent slowdown, but nothing like the total collapse predicted by the hundreds of “housing bubble” stories that appeared in the popular media over the last several years. In fact, in a December 10 entry to his real estate blog, the Orange County Register's Jon Lansner cited Business & Media Institute (B&MI), “a self-proclaimed media watchdog,” as ranking the bursting of the housing bubble fourth on its list of “The Media's Top 10 Economic Myths of 2006.” Lansner quoted B&MI as saying that the housing market is beginning to come down after two record years, shifting from a seller's to a buyer's market, and that “just because the market shifts to favor another party doesn't mean the economy is crashing down.”
Lansner's colleague, Martha Steffens, a professor of journalism studies at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism, in Columbia, says that because journalists got blamed for not sufficiently warning people about the tech stock bubble, “they have made a huge effort to warn people about the housing bubble.”
Obviously, journalists have the ability to shape public opinion — or to misshape it, as B&MI suggests. Too often, however, the facts are distorted when they involve numbers.
WRONG NUMBER Innumeracy — defined as lacking mathematical concepts and methods, and often more casually described as “mathematical illiteracy” — is widespread in the United States, and is of substantial concern to educators throughout the country. It's also an oft-cited criticism of the media. John Allen Paulos, a mathematics professor at Philadelphia's Temple University, and the author of, among other books, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, says that journalists may be even more innumerate than the public. “If so,” he says, “part of the reason may be that many enter the field because of an interest in writing and a lack of interest in numbers.”
Richard Holden, executive director of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, has been giving a seminar titled “Afraid of Math? Take a Number!” to newspapers and other press organizations for several years. “I hear the same thing at every seminar I give — ‘I got into journalism because I was so weak in math,'” he says.
It's probably not that journalists lack the brainpower to properly understand numbers. “Journalists are pretty smart,” Steffens says, but they lack confidence in their math skills. “If you're not comfortable [with numbers],” she concludes, “you have a tendency to not analyze the numbers you're given, or you shy away from using them.”
DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ Regardless of how widespread innumeracy in the media might be, it's inarguable that mathematical errors and misinterpretations of data appear in news reports on a regular basis. Some of these are syntax errors that may appear nitpicky to someone not thinking critically about what they're reading (which describes a large percentage of newspaper readers). Holden cites an article in The New York Times from the summer that covered New Jersey's sales tax increase from 6% to 7%, referring to it as a bump of 1%. In actuality, it was an increase of one percentage point —a hike of nearly 17%.
Other examples point to a bigger problem. One Web site that hosts a small collection of innumerate passages from newspapers lists an example from 10 years ago in which a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, arguing against raising the speed limit, said that “a car traveling 55 mph covers 807 feet in one second, almost three football fields.”