Journalism and BS detectors, or, The Washington Post fails at math and disclosure

I’m sitting on Saturday afternoon and reading the Washington Post. I know, not the paper it used to be. But since I’ve only been in D.C. since August, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Hmm, there’s a column about the Ward 1 race, and it actually tries to profile all four of the major candidates. That seems promising.

And it is, at least until I get to the sentence that tells me the Republican Party only has 29,000 registered voters in that ward, out of 425,000 total voters.

Get ready now: That is BS.
I don’t know much about the demographics or numbers relating to the nation’s capital. But I do know that the district certainly has fewer than 1 million people, and even the city that still loves Marion Barry isn’t corrupt enough to cram a clear majority of its residents into one ward (of eight!).

Who knows how much editing the story was able to receive? But that number –425,000 voters in one ward — should have jumped out. One fears that the long-standing notion of journalists hating math has received more anecdotal evidence.

Despite that failing, kudos to the Post for getting the correction online within a day. But, wait, the correction won’t tell you the original error, or the other errors the paper is ignoring. Go ahead, read it: 

“An earlier version of this column misstated the number of Republican voters in Ward 1.”

Well, yes, it did. But misstated implies that it, say, added a zero to the end — my original thought — making the correct sum 2,900 GOP voters of 42,500 total. But no: It’s 2,698 out of 51,178. What does that tell me? That King and/or his editors had outdated and estimated data, put placeholder numbers in and forgot to change them, or simply guessed. Also, while it was nice of King to list the percentage that the GOP holds of registered voters in Ward 1, getting the wrong numbers means that’s wrong, too.

Basically, we have one paragraph undermining the notion of preparation, reporting or thought into an otherwise civically engaging column, and the Post further damages its case by minimizing the correction.

I’ll get over it — the point was to say, hey, there are no Republicans in Ward 1, a fact even outsiders could probably surmise, but still. I don’t live in Ward 1 but still read the column through. But two types of groups, though small in number, won’t get over it. One is the angry caller — he’ll cancel, and some will almost be relieved. The other will get his news from free, shoddier outlets that don’t pretend to know any better. That’s the bigger blow, and it’s a silent one.

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