This is an opinion piece.
I’m writing this column for a reason, and that’s because I wasn’t a math major.
I chose a career in journalism due to the fact science and math were not vital to getting a degree. If it were, I’d probably still be in school.
Typically, I avoid writing about anything to do with numbers — I even avoid using too many dates. For example, a few weeks ago I wrote about the birth of my daughter, and yet, I still managed to screw up the date.
Numbers can be scary, but they’re even more terrifying when something doesn’t add up. That was the case when I saw a local TV news station publish an article claiming Marshall County’s total COVID-19 case count had increased by 517% over the last week.
After the headline (which has since changed) struck a chord with me, I chose to embark on a fact-checking escapade. Once completed, I was left with another question: what were they thinking?
It turns out, they took the numbers from a Yahoo! news article that featured statistics from the Department of Homeland Security report (of which I can’t find published anywhere), but fact checking is still required by the news station.
What I don’t know are the news station’s intentions. I can’t imagine them trying to invoke fear into the lives of locals on purpose, but such a misleading article has done exactly that.
Again, I’m no mathematician, but I’ve calculated percentage increases before, so I decided to give it a go.
I’ve recorded the county’s total case numbers according to the ADPH on May 6, May 13 and May 20 — the same time frame the article referenced. For the utmost consistency, I took totals from the same time of day (approximately 9 a.m.) shared via The Reporter’s Facebook page on each date specified, and then figured the percentage increase with my own calculator.
Here were my results:
• May 6 — 439 total cases
• May 13 — 581 total cases (+142; 32.35% increase from May 6)
• May 20 — 636 total cases (+55; 9.47% increase from May 13 and +197; 44.87% increase from May 6)
Even taking it a week further to April 29, when the total number of cases was 315, it was still only a 101.9% increase as of May 20.
Again, I’m not a mathematician, but I’ve had these calculations double- and triple-checked, so they are accurate. Do you see a 517% increase anywhere?
In simpler terms, saying something went up 500% is equivalent to saying the total has multiplied by five. That clearly hasn’t happened.
I have a tip for readers: don’t take everything at face value, because the media isn’t always correct, though we try to be. We can make mistakes — remember what mom and dad always told us? Nobody is perfect — it’s still true.
Don’t be afraid to call us out (and yes, I’m including The Reporter). When something doesn’t add up, don’t say: “Oh well, I must be wrong.” It’s possible that we made a mistake, but we’ll do our best to fix it and make things right.
The media’s job is to entertain and inform the public through compelling, yet factual articles. And it’s the reader’s job to settle for nothing less.
Taylor Beck is managing editor for The Reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.