Please show working

10 Jun

The chief revise sub isn’t quite sure about this paragraph:

Picture 42

He immediately saw what we all see when he calls us round to look at it: that doesn’t sound like 18% less. That sounds like a lot more than that. And he’s right: £250 is almost 40% less than £415, not 18%. And in the second calculation, £204, compared with what men with no qualifications earn per week (£354), is 42.3% less, not 14.3% less.

The nervousness that descends upon all journalists when numbers appear in a story starts to cloud the collective mind as we stare at it. The percentage figures are per hour, but the amounts in pounds are per week. Is that what the problem is? Does the hourly rate difference accumulate to create a larger gap at the end of the week? But a simple thought experiment rules that out. If one worker is paid £8 an hour and other is paid £10, the difference in hourly rate is 25%. After a six-hour shift, one has earned £48 and the other £60 – still a 25% difference. At the end of a five-day week, one has earned £240 and the other £300 – still a 25% difference. No: if a woman earns 18% less in the course of an hour, she should earn 18% less in the course of a week. Something’s wrong.

The chief revise sub goes over to the reporter and ask to see the data on which the story is based. (The appearance at one’s desk of a member of production staff asking to see source documents is never a good sign for a reporter, of course, but they always seem to take it with remarkable stoicism.) He returns with this (click the image to magnify):


Pay data main NEW

As usual, some of the highlighting and circling seems to have been done with a completely different story in mind, but the data is there. Take a look at the last column, four rows down. There’s the 18% median pay gap figure (well, 17.9% – close enough for newspaper work). Read left, back along that row, and there are the gross weekly pay figures for men and women: £415 and £250. And the second-bottom row, for unqualified men and women, is also just like the reporter wrote it: 14.3%, £204, £354. What’s on earth’s going on? Is the table just completely innumerate?

And then someone has a bright thought. The problem women face in the workplace is not just lower pro-rata pay: it’s also less opportunity to work, whatever the rate. What if the gross pay figure reflects not only a lower hourly rate, but also a lower number of hours overall? It doesn’t explicitly say so anywhere in the table or the story, but what if the women’s working week in the study is shorter than the men’s?

The figures are there to work it out quickly: divide the gross weekly pay by the median hourly rate to get number of hours. For the men, that’s £415 divided by £10.02, or 41.4 hours per week – a full-time job. For the women, though, it’s £250 divided by £8.23, or 30.4 hours a week – a full 11 hours less. That’s why it doesn’t add up. No wonder it struck everyone as strange.

It’s fairly easy fix in the article, too. There’s no space to explore the issue of unequal hours – it’s only a 250-word downpage slot– so you have to lose the easy-to-grasp pound figures and go with the percentages. But at least it’s right now, and at least it was fixed before publication.

Thank goodness for multi-stage editing. The common cry when a mistake gets into print, from readers or readers’ editors, is “didn’t any of you notice?” Well, this time, somebody did. Maybe the chart shouldn’t have been taken out of context, or divorced from its explanatory notes. Maybe it didn’t have any notes at all, and silently included undeclared data that would have thrown anyone off track. Maybe it shouldn’t have got all the way through to the revise desk before it was spotted.

But that’s editing. That’s how it works. It’s not a discrete, finite task: it’s a process. There will always be mistakes on first proof. There will always be mistakes on second proof. More often than not, you’ll find something horrible on a final read even after hours of work on a story. That’s why the Tribune’s production editor insists on press-reading every page of the paper: even if it’s right on deadline, even if that means tearing the proof up and hurriedly handing individual stories round the room. Nothing beats multiple revisions and multiple pairs of eyes. It doesn’t matter how good you are: you won’t spot everything. But maybe someone else will see what you missed.


One Response to “Please show working”


  1. Briefly | Stats Chat - August 2, 2014

    […] the copyediting blog “Ten Minutes Past Deadline”, an example of how statistical errors avoid getting into print (on a good day, God willing and the creek […]

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