Image vs. Reality

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Compare and contrast. Here is the FT’s Gillian Tett explaining some of the changes she had to make in her book Fool’s Gold in order to appeal to both British and American audiences:

The real fun erupted when I wrote the preface. Initially I planned to start the book by admitting that I was not a true expert on high finance: instead I crashed into this world in 2005, after a background spent in journalism-cum-social anthropology — making me a well-intentioned amateur, but without complete knowledge.

My friends in the British publishing world loved that honesty; in the UK, self-deprecation sells, particularly for “well-meaning amateurs” such as the writer Bill Bryson. But my American friends hated it. In New York, I was sternly told, absolutely nobody wants to listen to self-doubt. If you are going to write a book — let alone stand on a political platform or run a company — you must act as if you are an expert, filled with complete conviction. For the US version, the preface was removed entirely.

And here is Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander admitting that reporters at the Post can’t do basic arithmetic and pretty much don’t seem to care about it:

A review of published corrections for the past three months shows that few days passed without a numbers error….”I think what’s going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don’t question it,” [Scott] Maier said. “With numbers, I think journalists tend to abdicate that scrutiny.”

….Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that’s not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing usage of numbers in reporting and graphics, The Post should pay heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.

In America, no one wants to listen to self doubt. Also in America, our reporters don’t have a working knowledge of arithmetic, which underlies practically every topic commonly reported on the front page or the evening news. Somehow, I suspect the latter makes the former a lot easier.

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