He figures on a number of common errors

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Every time I put a number in this column I increase the likelihood that something will be wrong.

Don't ask me by what percentage the odds of error change. I don't know and, if I did, I'd hesitate in the telling. (See paragraph one.)

This is not a malady unique to me, but I'm bringing it up because there's a guy who visits newsrooms around the country trying to get journalists to be more comfortable with numbers by showing just how stupid other reporters have been with them.

Rich Holden puts that more delicately. For the past 20 years, Mr. Holden has been executive director of the Dow Jones News Fund, a private foundation that encourages students to consider careers in journalism. (Yeah, forget medicine, kid. Get thee to a newspaper. We have a great future behind us. Heh, heh.)

Mr. Holden, 63, spoke to maybe 10 of us in a big conference room. (Just don't trust me on the 10. Never trust any crowd estimate you get via the media. We're notoriously bad at counting, and the official estimates that cops offer us at parades, riots and other social gatherings are no better.)

Mr. Holden says he went into journalism to avoid math but then wound up on the national desk of The Wall Street Journal. He figured he'd better shape up, and did. For years he has combed the corrections columns of top newspapers to see where the slip-ups have been.

I took his quiz because I'm often working with numbers. With luck, I will soon be telling you what percentage of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents should be paying less in property taxes this year.

When I say "with luck," I mean roughly the luck of any Powerball winner. Because finding tax winners is a moving target. Variables include not just the new assessments but pending appeals, tax-exempt properties, rising homestead exemptions and sinking millage rates in more than 160 taxing districts. (I'm rounding there. Rounding is good.) Even the brainiacs at Carnegie Mellon University have trouble keeping up.

Still I intend to share what I have when I can get it together because information is power. The trick is expressing it in a way that means something to somebody.

Take this word-for-word example from one of the nation's best newspapers, lifted whole by Mr. Holden:

"But this was our land before the white men pushed them back here," he added. The Crow were granted the area by treaty in 1851, but the size of their land has shrunk from 38.8 million acres to only 2.5 million acres today.

Don't feel bad if you can't spot the errors. The numbers are right. The trouble is they don't tell you much. Who besides Ben Cartwright could picture 38.8 million acres?

The writer should have converted acres to square miles, Mr. Holden said. Then she might have gone one better and converted those square miles into states. A reader more easily could envision the ancestral beef of the Crow people if the story said: "The size of their land has shrunk from an area roughly the size of Georgia to one smaller than Connecticut."

Of course, a copy editor might still want the reporter to put the numbers back in. As Mr. Holden put it, "All copy editors will tell you they're anal-retentive, but they'll argue whether that's hyphenated."

Numbers are just another way of describing the world. If you can find a better way, you do it. The great baseball analyst Bill James has created his own statistics to measure and change the way we think about the game, yet Mr. James, a terrific writer, tries to keep his prose as free from numbers as he possibly can.

Abraham Lincoln was the same way. He might have begun the Gettysburg Address with "Eighty-seven years ago" but he went with "four score and seven." Why? First, it's way cooler. Second, Abe didn't want people to focus on a double-digit number rather than the core of his message. That everyone, even the mathematically challenged, was reminded that our nation began a long time ago was good enough.

Not even Lincoln ever had to speak about millage rates and assessments, though, as far as I know.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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