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Making corrections, handling statistics

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As part of a regular Mirror feature in which new meaning is gleaned from old news, Teng Yun, a journalist with China Women's News, took a look at a letter to the editor from a 1977 issue of People's Daily (original article available here).

The topic concerns a newspaper's correction and clarification column, but Teng touches on statistics reporting as well. Ironically, the Mirror wrote Teng Yun's surname as 藤 rather than 滕 in the byline, a mistake it has not yet corrected.

What happens when a newspaper makes an error?

by Teng Yun / Mirror

An acceptable upper limit for the error rate of a newspaper is 0.05%. That is to say, it is acceptable for a few dozen typos to appear in a newspaper every day. And I can be certain that every newspaper published in China most definitely contains an error every day. I'm willing to make a wager if you don't believe me. There's a magazine called Yaowen Jiaozi in Shanghai that makes its living by picking errors out of newspapers.

If you make a mistake then fix it, that's a good boy. This is the natural duty of a newspaper as well. However, the people who run newspapers apparently don't realize this. Generally speaking, mistakes don't work well with one's self-respect; hence, they're not very willing to directly acknowledge their error and frequently dance around the issue instead. They may use the "at the request of the other party" technique to hide their shame, or they may simply pretend not to notice. The interested reader is welcome to take a look at corrections columns in various newspapers, where they may discover which ones take a decent attitude toward this, and which ones would do anything to save face.

The 4 February 1977 issue of People's Daily had an article titled "Take care to confirm the veracity of information." The piece was not long:

Comrade editor:

In the 27 January, 1977, edition of People's Daily, page 3, the report about Guangdong's state-run farms titled "State-run farms have a vast future for development" closed with the following line: "Apart from a single farm that had a small deficit, the rest of the farms across the province had surplus earnings; the province's farms gave the country a profit last year of more than 6 million yuan." This passage of the report is untrue. Of the farms in the Zhanjiang area, more than one suffered a loss, and losses at certain farms were quite large; this is not just "a deficit." We are not certain how much profit the province turned over to the state, but from the Zhanjiang area alone, the profit handed over to the state was more than five times the amount stated in the article. We hope that you will take care to confirm the veracity of information.

Planning Department, Zhanjiang Agriculture Bureau

What can be learned from People's Daily is not only their readiness to correct mistakes as they learn of them, but their comprehensive, objective principles of editing as well. Looking carefully, this letter points out two factual discrepancies: one, the number and extent of money-losing farms; two, the amount of profit handed over. More important, however, is the fact that while the facts provided in the materials from the Zhanjiang Agriculture Bureau may be true, they are logically contradictory - if there are many money-losing farms, then naturally less profit will be turned in. So, as an editor, should you respect the facts, or respect logic?

Generally speaking, people running newspapers like to work according to logic; if the facts violate their own sense of logic, then nine out of ten editors will use their own logic to guide the facts. So then, is this kind of newspaper still objective?

On this point alone, many newspapers today ought to learn from the People's Daily of 30 years ago.

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There are currently 4 Comments for Making corrections, handling statistics.

Comments on Making corrections, handling statistics

Comrade Joel:

In the February 14, 2007, edition of Danwei, 11:48 PM, the letter about Guangdong's state-run farms titled "Take care to confirm the veracity of information." contains the following year: "1997". This part of the translation is untrue. The original says "1977". We hope that you will take care to confirm the accuracy of translation.

(just kidding. thanks for yet another interesting piece.)

Well, sure. Once I decided to point out the Mirror's typo, it was inevitable that I'd make my own stupid mistake. Thanks for not being too cruel.

I'd don't quite see that it's impossible for both parts of the statement from the Zhanjiang Agriculture Bureau to be correct. They have both more loss-making farms than reported but also have turned over more money overall, if say, the overall combined earnings were much higher than in the PD article,
Of course, your first suspicion is it was just them wily Cantonese trying to shirk their glorious Socialist duty to prop up the rest of the (then)shaky national economy.

I was actually hoping that some reader would clue me in as to the true lesson we should learn from the PD editors - I think the author may have been going for some veiled commentary on current statistical reporting practices - i.e. just let'em report the damn numbers already.

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