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Style over precision, yet again

One of the problems I have with journalism is that too often style takes precedence over precision. This is obviously fine for fiction books, less so with non-fiction although who can tell the difference these days, and should be less and less acceptable as you go from monthly magazines, to the weeklies, to the dailies, until you get to real-time 24/7 news that should be all facts, all the time.

Har har.

As an example, here is a Washington Post article about the Dutch food industry described the Netherlands as “a bit bigger than Maryland”. The article’s whole point is how much food can be produced in a tight space, so having the readers understand how big or small the country of Nethelrands actually was is important. I have ties to both of these places and some sense of their relative sizes, and I always thought the Netherlands to be more than a bit bigger than Maryland. My adopted home state may take a while to drive across, but since it’s being eaten by the Commonwealth of Virginia from one corner and the Chesapeake Bay from the other, there isn’t much land there.

To confirm my suspicion I went to Wikipedia, which said that the land area of Maryland was 25,314 km2 while the Netherlands had 41,865 km2 total area, 18.41% of which was water, yielding 31,457 km2 of land — a full 25% more than Maryland. If if you wanted to be more conservative you could say that Maryland was 20% smaller than the Netherlands, but that is not the comparison WaPo made. See also how percentages change with different framing — caveat lector. If I thought a meal cost $35 with tax but then the bill showed $43.75 I’d be asking for an explanation, and so would WaPo writers.

Or is 25% margin of error good enough, if you are to preserve the tired journalistic trope of comparing one thing to another? Because this is a clear case of precision being sacrificed to the gods of style: at 25,314 km2 Maryland truly is the closest to the Netherlands of all the states of the Union and also has the benefit of being in WaPo’s local domain. The next closest, West Virgina, is at 62,259 km2 twice the size of the Netherlands. Or rather — let’s not make the same sacrifice here — almost twice the size.

On the other hand, this is a 2-year-old article and who cares anyway? While I did stop paying attention to the newspaper noise a while ago, I still leave space for it to change my perception — which this article would have done were the relative sizes within a single-digit percentage of each other. But then I check, and nope, another disappointment.

(↬Marginal Revolution)

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