Reporting Numbers in the Press: A Perspective

It seems that I keep remembering the pearls from George Mikes’s How to be an Alien. But how can I avoid doing so, when I get to see the screen shot of a story on CNN’s website? The story is not dissimilar to the one we had in the British news some time ago, about the severed female body remains found on the Scottish coast. The screen shot highlighted the inappropriate use of contextual advertising: the story is about severed feet being regularly found on the Canadian coast, so we get an ad for PutYourFeetUp, a house-moving company. I have just checked the site, but have not found the banner there, so I didn’t include the image of a screen shot in my post.

The CNN story is rather gruesome: for 11 months people in the town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island in British Columbia have been finding severed feet. The latest – 6th in number – has turned up in a shoe, the police report, and it can take weeks, if not months, to use DNA science to identify the body parts.

It was when I looked at the story highlights that I recalled the chapter “Journalism, or The Freedom of the Press” from Mikes’s bestseller. In the chapter, Mikes parodies the style of the 1930s-40s English tabloids, to showcase how a story of the rebellion on a remote island would be covered in the press. The fact he takes as a premise is that of a rebellion which was successfully put down, and 217 rebels were held captive during the island raid. The Times, in Mikes’s parody, would report on the number of captured rebels in the following way:

The number of revolutionaries captured cannot be safely stated, but it seems likely that the number is well over 216 but well under 218.


In the CNN story, despite the title “Sixth severed foot surfaces off Canadian coast”, the highlights read:

At least five other feet since August that have surfaced off Canadian shore” (my bolding – JD).

It looks like that when it comes to reporting numbers in the press, countries and time truly don’t matter.


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