Thursday, November 16, 2006

Son of 'do the math'

The general rule on numbers is that when you see two or more of them in a story, do something to 'em. That doesn't mean "and put the results in the story" or "and change the presentation in the text." It means making two sets of comparisons:

1) Internal, to confirm that sums, products, differences and the like bear some (preferably quite close) resemblance to the ones we report.
2) External, to ensure that what we're reporting fits more or less into accepted historical timelines. That's how we avoid having people vote for candidates who died before they were born, serve in wars that ended when they were 4 years old, and the like.

Leading, of course, to today's lesson:

During World War II, he served in the Army in Okinawa, Japan, from April 1943 until 1945, said his sister, Willamina Laughner.

Neat trick for a lad from Pennsylvania. The rest of the Army didn't get to Okinawa until April 1945.

What this looks like (this is a hypothesis; I wasn't there) is the sort of error known as a 2+2=22. Reporter asks when decedent served. Sister says "April 1943 to 1945." Reporter asks where. Sister says "Okinawa." Reporter puts two and two together and gets 22.

That's a long way of saying this one isn't the desk's fault. But catching garden-variety heuristic errors like the 2+2 is how desks win friends and influence people (who, not coincidentally, might be the ones at some future newspaper deciding on whether to cut or strengthen the copydesk). Go ahead. Take a few minutes and hunt up some details. Wikipedia will never be a reliable main source, but it's useful and convenient for a ranging shot on matters like this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done post.
execpt one thing. i believe in Wikipedia :-)



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9:40 AM, November 29, 2006  

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