Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reporters Don’t Need to Know Arithmetic....

to get a job at the New York Times. In an article about broadband adoption, after a reference to Finland’s promise to extend 100 Mbps service to its entire population, we read:

Finland occupies a compact 130,558 square miles, versus more than 3.5 million for the United States. The economics of broadband deployment are greatly affected by physical distances.

Right away something smelled fishy. As anyone who has been there will know, Finland can hardly be described as “compact”; it’s a land of wide open spaces, many of them inhabited by a fierce, warlike breed of mosquitoes. This may be why sitting indoors in front of a computer screen is the national pastime. But I digress.

Finland is smaller than the US but has fewer people. In fact, while the land area of the US is 30 times that of Finland, the population ratio is about 60:1. In other words, average population density is about twice as high in the US as Finland. Perhaps there are regional variations in density that offset the overall average for cost calculations, but that would need to be demonstrated, and in any case it doesn’t follow from the data given in the article.

OK, comparisons between the price of broadband in the US and Finland are a bit esoteric for the purposes of this blog. But the same standards are applied to economics stories with depressing consistency: as Dean Baker has shown, a large portion of the reportorial staff at our leading newspapers have problems with the concept of a denominator. (“Congress voted an extra $3 billion for program X, an exorbitant sum that will surely bankrupt our great-great-grandchildren....”)

1 comment:

Min said...

The innumeracy of the press is something that I noted in my seventh grade civics class, where we would read newspaper stories that said things like, "The U. S. military budget is X billion dollars, while the Soviet Union spends Y percent of its GNP on the military." Huh? Nothing has really changed on that front.