Public Editor

Numbers tell an incomplete story without context

Most of the feedback I hear from readers about The Kansas City Star’s fairness and accuracy comes down to words. Is “concede” equivalent to “admit?”Or should last week’s “Happy Fourth of July” front-page banner have instead used “Independence Day” to give the day “the respect and honor it deserves,” as one emailer put it?

There’s usually an element of subjectivity in the world of language. That isn’t usually the case when the topic turns to numbers, which are usually black and white. It was easy to figure out that a March story gave the wrong number of Johnson County Wastewater System pump stations, or that the KU men’s basketball team’s overall record was misstated in February.

But there are also times when figures are technically correct, yet they tell an incomplete or even misleading tale.

One prime offender: “fever line” charts, which often run in the Business section. These graphs track changes of any variable over time. In a common example, the vertical axis marks the price of a stock while the horizontal marks the passage of days.

While constructing such a chart is straightforward, readers have pointed out to me that even accurate data can look vastly different depending on a few variables. Let’s say a stock has been fluctuating between $15 and $17. If the vertical scale starts at $14 and tops out at $18, the fever line will show some fairly dramatic swings as the stock changes from $15.05 to $16.85.

But then plot that same data on an axis that begins at zero and goes up to $20. You’ll see a much smoother line there — and one that probably gives a more accurate overall picture, some would argue.

Reader Steve Schutte pointed out a similar point about a wire story last month concerning sexual assaults in the military. It said approximately 26,000 sexual assaults occur in the military every year. But is that high or low compared to the general population? According to Schutte’s calculations, the rate of sexual assaults per person in the military is much higher than the national average. “That context really shows how big the number 26,000 is in this instance and would certainly add to the article,” he wrote.

Email hoaxes continue

I received multiple copies of the same chain email this past week from readers demanding to know why The Star hadn’t published a photo that showed what 17-year-old Trayvon Martin really looked like when he was killed by George Zimmerman last winter in Florida.

Instead of the skinny youngster seen in other photographs, this image showed a sturdy man with serious features and numerous tattoos, including a large star covering much of his right cheek.

Many chain emails making unbelievable claims are pretty stupid, frankly, but this one is a special kind of ridiculous. Not only is the photo not of Trayvon Martin — it is actually a professional portrait of a well-known celebrity: Grammy-nominated rapper Jayceon Terrell Taylor, whose goes by stage name The Game.

Why would anyone perpetrate such an easily disproven hoax? Beats me. I also don’t understand why people pass along similar messages claiming that a mixture of honey and cinnamon can cure ailments from heart disease to bone cancer. If these things were true, would we really hear about them only in an anonymously-authored email with no source references?

Remember that the media world is an extremely competitive field. If you see something that sounds amazing and you can’t find any legitimate news sources reporting on it, head over to the excellent, where they’ve been debunking Internet rumors with valid sourcing since the mid-1990s. If it seems too good to believe, your instincts are most likely serving you well.