Monday, Washington Post media critic Jack Shafer pointed out a “mythical number” related to the “cost” of identity theft to the economy.
Reporters have so much faith in the pure power of numbers that many will inject into a piece any ones available as long as they 1) are big; 2) come from a seemingly authoritative source; and 3) don’t contradict the point the reporter is trying to make.
The magic number for journalists covering the identity theft beat has been $48 billion—the estimated annual losses suffered by identity theft victims—which carries the Federal Trade Commission’s imprimatur. Since its arrival in 2003, the number has appeared in hundreds of news stories, including a May 30 New York Times piece.
Shafer notes that academics have been decrying the use of mythical numbers by the press for decades.
The Shafer story reminded me of a recent “On the Media” broadcast that looked into the “Prime Number” phenomenon, in which there seems to be approximately 50,000 predators online, but the number 50,000 seems to resurface as an estimate in abberant social phenomenon over the years, like child abductions, and satanic cult sacrifices.
The reason such illogical numbers keep cropping up is because journalists use numbers as proof like some preachers use biblical citations as “proof texts.”
Steve Ross, a former professor at Columbia University’s School of
Journalism, who taught a class on reporting numbers, says journalists
have their own reasons for ornamenting their stories with digits.
Look, 30, 40 years ago, ever since I’ve been in the business, the
editor will come down to you and say, add a number. It builds
credibility. Got to have a number in there.
But when it comes to crime, a good number is hard to find.
The only reasonably accurate national crime statistics come out of
something called the Uniform Crime Report. The Uniform Crime Report
only tracks eight different crimes – rape, murder, auto theft, that
sort of thing. If it’s not a crime that is tracked – child pornography
is not tracked, for instance – there is no hard and fast national
number that comes out of that. At the very best, it’s a number that’s
extrapolated from a more limited survey.
Two great resources for deconstructing some of the mythical numbers are: Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists and More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues, both by Joel Best. Best uses practical examples of current social issues to illustrate how different groups distort numbers (intentionally or not) to suit their interests. They are a very readable introduction to the topic.
Shafer story found via the institute for analytic journalism