Two New York Times stories questioned after central numbers don’t add up

Two recent New York Times articles included significant numerical errors that elicited howls of protest from readers and critics.

In each case, the wrong number was core to the story’s central thesis, leading some to suggest the entire article should have been retracted or completely altered.

Both mistakes highlight how mistaken numbers, once revealed, can become the story, rather than the article itself.

First error: Wall Street psychopaths

On May 12, the Times published an opinion article, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” that stated, “A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ‘clinical psychopaths’ and that they exhibit an ‘unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.’ ”

In the Daily Beast, Edward Jay Epstein tracked the origin of the claim to a report in The Week about the work of Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare. That piece had based its report on an article in CFA Magazine.

A game of telephone fools the Times” read the headline on a Columbia Journalism Review piece about the error. Sounds about right. Ryan Chittum added more detail:

In other words, the Times’s false information was sourced from The Week, which sourced it, via aggregated posts at master aggregators Business Insider and Huffington Post, from CFA Institute magazine which sourced it, erroneously, from “Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare.”

Even worse, he noted, the 10 percent figure had been called out as fake two months prior to the Times piece.

“The problem here is that Hare never conducted a clinical study of the financial-service industry, and never presented evidence that 10 percent of its members were psychopaths,” Epstein wrote.

Yet this phantom number spread like wildfire, ending up in a very prominent place in a Times opinion piece.

The Times responded with a correction:

An opinion essay on May 13 about ethics and capitalism misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.

There’s a lot of detail — meaning big things being corrected — in the above.

First, obviously, 10 percent shrinks to four percent. Very notable.

But that new number comes with a major hedge. The correction explains that this weak four percent stat isn’t even specific to Wall Street workers. These are general “corporate professionals.” The Wall Street angle is no longer accurate.

In his piece about the error, Epstein quotes Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator,” as saying, “Headline-grabbing trend manufacturing such as this now dominates the pseudo-news cycle on the Web.”

That’s one take. Another is that this mistake, and its path to the Times op-ed, shows the way a claim, once published in one media outlet, can replicate itself in other reports. It also shows why relying on other media outlets for the purposes of sourcing and fact checking can be a risky proposition.

In the end, the result is an op-ed that at the very least lost one major data point in its argument. What remains is a viewpoint without a compelling stat to back it up. Does that negate the opinion? Or just make make it less persuasive?

Second error: Student debt

Also on May 12, the Times published a long story about student debt in America. It was part of special series, and it too included a significant numerical error. Here’s the correction:

An article on Sunday about college students’ debt, and an accompanying chart, misstated the percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients who had borrowed money for their education from the government, private lenders, or with the help of family members.

The article stated that the percentage had increased to 94 percent from 45 percent in 1993, based on data from the Department of Education, whose officials reviewed The Times’s methodology before publication. While the percentage of students borrowing for college has indeed increased significantly, the 94 percent figure reflected an inaccurate interpretation of the data, which came from a survey of 2007-2008 graduates.

That survey showed that 66 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients borrowed from the government or private lenders; an additional percentage of graduates had family members who borrowed on their behalf or who lent them money, meaning that the total percentage with college borrowing increased to more than 66 percent. But the precise figure isn’t known because the department survey did not address borrowing involving family members. (The earlier survey, of 1992-1993 graduates, found that just 45 percent of graduates had borrowed from all sources, including from family members.)

Long story, long correction.

The correction inspired a bit of personal reflection by Ben Wildavsky, the author of “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.” He led with the fact that the Times’ error in his view undercuts the story:

For anybody who missed it, there was an edu-wonk brouhaha this week over an embarrassing error in the New York Times’ big series on student debt. The Times vastly overstated the percentage of students with debt – a particularly significant mistake given that this statistic was the linchpin of the story – then ran a rather defensive correction three days later.

The incorrect statistic about student debt was delivered in a critical paragraph of the story, high up. (The psychopath error was in the lead paragraph.)

What’s disconcerting is the story goes from having a definitive number — 94 percent — to a much lower number that carries less weight because it comes from data that are different than the initial benchmark (“the precise figure isn’t known”).

Would the story have been told differently if that stat was there all along? Would the paper have used such a wishy-washy number in its nut graf?

This is the thing with numbers in journalism: when they fit a thesis, they’re utilized as a major building block in a report. They often provide a data point to support anecdotal reporting.

So when those same numbers fail or are debunked, we shouldn’t be surprised to see them backfire to the point where they raise questions about an entire story.

Third error: megasecond

It’s a numerical error, but admittedly not of the same degree as the above. Still, this wonderful Times correction reinforces the fact that a mangled number can tell a very different story than the one intended:

An earlier version of this post included an erroneous reference to how long it took the people in the audience at “Death of a Salesman” to leap to their feet at the end. It was not a megasecond, which is one million seconds or about 11 days.

The lesson? In the world of numbers, as with language, precision is king. Read more

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The Los Angeles Times mistakenly turned an oral exam into a “moral” one:

State bar: An article in the May 17 LATExtra section about the California Supreme Court considering a request by the state bar to allow an illegal immigrant to practice law said that Sergio C. Garcia had passed a written test and a moral examination. It was an oral examination.

Thanks to Steve Lamont for emailing it in.

Los Angeles Times

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Reporter fired after attributing lack of softball stats to ‘coach’s bullshit and laziness’

Louisiana-based journalist Jeannine LeJeune tweeted this part of an article that she said appeared in Thursday’s edition of the Rayne Independent:

I asked LeJeune if there was a byline on the piece; she said there wasn’t. The paper does not have a website, but I followed up for more details.

In the meantime: Wow.

Jim Romenesko reported Friday that Kade Seibold, the reporter responsible for the story, has been fired. The newspaper’s general manager told Romenesko that the reporter meant to take the line out when he got the stats, but he forgot.

“I was writing the article and I was beginning to get frustrated because I didn’t have the proper information to write it [but] that’s no excuse,” Seibold told Romenesko. “I was wrong, but I think the punishment is very stiff.”

In response to LeJeune, Seibold tweeted this morning:

Read more


U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror apologizes for saying that a female musician was one of many women who supposedly slept with a well known BBC DJ:

Following our article of 1 May 2012 in which it was reported that Lyn Paul of the New Seekers was a “conquest” of Tony Blackburn, Ms Paul has contacted us to say that she merely shared a dinner date with Tony Blackburn and neither slept with him nor had a relationship with him.  We are happy to make this clear and apologise to Ms Paul for any upset caused.

Via Tabloid Watch

Daily Mirror

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‘Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook’ tale was the perfect shareable story

This week, a powerful, infinitely shareable blog post was picked up by many news sites and shared online an astounding number of times. The story was that Abraham Lincoln had filed a patent application for an idea that was remarkably similar to Facebook, albeit using more rudimentary media.

“How could it not get attention? Abe Lincoln, pretty much inventing Facebook!” writes Megan Garber in an in-depth look at the story for The Atlantic.

It was a hoax. Of course it was.

But, oh boy, was it fun when people thought it was true! And there you have a big reason it was such a big hit for the hoaxster behind it, Nate St. Pierre.

Garber outlines some of the reasons the story was so captivating:

This was such a good story. You wanted it to be true — not just as a fun fact, or as an easy Internet Shareable, or as a reminder of the psychic continuity between past and present, or as a Campbellian myth of the banality of heroism, or as a Buellerian tale of the obvious productivity of truancy … but also because, I mean, Lincoln inventing Facebook. There is nothing that is not awesome about that.

All good, relevant points.

This kind of story is irresistible, especially online. In no time, a blog post like this will be sucked up into the aggregation turbine and spat out accross the Web. It gets bonus points for virality because any clever story about Facebook is bound to blow up on Facebook.

Looking at it, you can see the hand of a talented hoaxster, and that’s what Garber found when she interviewed St. Pierre. (I did my own interview with a different hoaxster a little while back.)

What’s most interesting to me is St. Pierre’s motivation. He didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to unleash a fake story that will go viral!”

His motivation was, if I dare say, purer than that. He wanted to tell a good story, something fun and surprising. Here’s some of what he told Garber:

“I was crabby; I was in a bad mood; I was tired of looking around at all the boring, lame stuff online — all the same people rehashing the same things.”

[He wanted] “to write something that would be exciting to read.”

“If you just have creativity and a blog, you can be powerful.”

He wanted to write something that people would enjoy and that could stand out from all the other stuff he was seeing. Something that was creative and fun.

St. Pierre put together the exact kind of story people want to blog about and share. It had all the elements of virality, one of which is thinking about storytelling and emotion rather than virality itself.

Here’s what Huffington Post co-founder, current BuzzFeed CEO and virality expert Jonah Peretti has said about what makes content viral and shareable:

Users are less likely to share how-to articles and more likely to share content that’s funny or that they identify with. As Peretti put it, on Facebook, users share things that “define you and make you look good.”

Some comments from his recent talk at a Guardian event:

St. Pierre’s Lincoln hoax checked just about every box, leading lots of people to repeat and share the story without doing any checking of their own.

The more viral and shareable something is, the less people — the press included — are inclined to hold off and verify.

This is “too good to check,” Internet-style. Read more

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Daily Mail reporter can’t explain how false report got published

After publishing a false report about a dentist who pulled all of her ex-boyfriend’s teeth in revenge, a reporter for the Daily Mail’s website now says he’s unable to explain exactly where the story came from.

“I’ve drawn a bit of a blank,” MailOnline journalist Simon Tomlinson told, which has a look at how the hoax story spread far and wide. “The (Daily) Mail Foreign Service, which did the piece for the paper, is really just an umbrella term for copy put together from agencies. My news desk isn’t sure where exactly it came from.”

So it appears his byline was slapped on a story he had nothing to do with. A story that his editors seem to have no information about, that came from unnamed agencies, and was rewritten by … well, whom?

To call this strange is a massive understatement. MailOnline doesn’t seem to be able to explain how this story ended up on its website.

But I bet it did some boffo traffic!

From the report about the fake story:

News websites around the world ran the story last week about a woman in Poland named Anna Maćkowiak who took revenge on a man named Marek Olszewski when he turned up at her clinic complaining of toothache, days after dumping her for another woman.

Among the numerous U.S. news sites that picked up the story were Fox Newsthe Los Angeles Timesthe San Francisco ChronicleHuffington PostYahoo! NewsMSN, the New York Post, andThe New York Daily News. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft, which operates MSN, and Comcast.)

The story even included quotes from the scorned dentist and her toothless ex.

The report also notes that Polish media made fun of all the English-language outlets that reported the story as true.

Now that the tale has been debunked, we have yet to see all of the necessary corrections.

MailOnline’s story remained fully intact with the headline, “Dentist pulled out ALL boyfriend’s teeth after he dumped her (and new girlfriend leaves him because of his empty mouth),” for close to 24 hours after the story went online. The URL now goes to an error page.

No retraction, no mention of the fact that the site has no idea where the story came from or that it’s fake.

The Huffington Post has yet to correct its piece, and the same goes for The Daily Telegraph, New York Post, Fox News, etc. (The Los Angeles Times updated its post to reflect the report from, as did the New York Daily News.)

On the positive side of the ledger, the San Francisco Chronicle and Yahoo! News have both issued updates.

Update: Huffington Post added a retraction to the top of its story:

MSNBC reported today, May 9, that the dentist accused of drugging up her boyfriend and pulling his teeth out doesn’t exist. Cops in Wroclaw, Poland told the station that they hadn’t received word of such a crime, and a legal adviser for Poland’s Chamber of Physicians and Dentists said there is no dental practitioner named Anna Mackowiak.

A handful of respectable publications ran the story before it was aggregated. Still, we strive to make sure all the articles we publish are 100-percent accurate. We regret the error.

Read more

Washington Post writer turns Benedict Cumberbatch into ‘Bandersnatch Cummerbund’

At first I guessed it was a spell-check error that transformed fantastically-named “Sherlock” actor Benedict Cumberbatch into “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” in a Washington Post story, but I was wrong.

(Via @Alex_Ogle and @sstummeafp)

It was also in the online version:

However, reporter Alex Johnson thought it was a deliberate bit by the writer, Lisa de Moraes:

Turns out, he was right. Washington Post senior social media producer T. J. Ortenzi says it was intentional, and we can expect to see something from de Moraes soon explaining the name choice:

Update: The writer speaks!

In a post on the Washington Post website, de Moraes explains that she inserted Bandersnatch Cummerbund on purpose.

“It has come to my attention that there is raging debate, in re whether we intentionally referred to Benedict Cumberbatch as Bandersnatch Cummerbund in The TV Column and blog,” de Moraes writes.

She then recounts the backstory of this very post and my initial, incorrect view that her use of that name was a typo. She also notes that I lost my bet with Johnson regarding the name, and now owe him a beer.

I will provide said beer the next time I have the pleasure of seeing Johnson in person. De Moraes can also enjoy one on me if we should ever find ourselves in the same place at the same time with alcohol on offer. All the better if Canadian beer is on hand.

But back to that name. Behold its origin:

The nickname “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” originated with one of the serious students of television who join me each Friday to chat about all things TV. We loved it then, we love it now. Oh — wink wink!

Note: The original headline on this post stated that “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” was a typo; the headline has since been updated to reflect that it wasn’t a typo. Read more


Three U.K. publishers pay damages for false accusations

Three major U.K. publishers last week apologized and paid damages to an Algerian man they accused of being a “gangster” and offering a safe house to terrorists, among other false claims. The publishers removed the offending pieces from their websites and published online notices about the apology and a recent court appearance.

Here’s the apology from Metro U.K.:

Metro and other publishers yesterday told the High Court they had paid substantial damages to an Algerian man for wrongly reporting that he offered a safe house in France to British al-Qaeda terrorists.

Associated Newspapers, the publisher of MailOnline and Metro; The Telegraph Media Group; MGN, the publisher of the Daily Mirror; and the publisher of the Daily Express apologised to Farid Boukemiche, 40. Some reports said he was on trial in France in January 2011 for associating with a known terrorist organisation and for financing terrorism. Others alleged he was a ‘gangster’ accused of carrying out robberies or had admitted to robbery.

The High Court heard the articles had been withdrawn from the newspapers’ websites, that they had accepted that the allegations were untrue and they had apologised to Mr Boukemiche.

Read the similar offerings from MailOnline and the Daily Telegraph. Read more


In referring to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Los Angeles Times commits an Osama/Obama error:

Bin Laden: A May 3 column by Doyle McManus referred to “the anniversary of Obama’s death.” That phrase should have read “the anniversary of [Osama] Bin Laden’s death.”

Los Angeles Times


This Slate “Mad Men” correction is not suitable for children:

In an April 30 “TV Club,” Julia Turner misstated when Sally Draper ate the fish in Mad Men. It was before she saw the blow job.



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