The following headline in the Daily Telegraph struck me as really odd:

Facebook at five: Ten times more traffic to Twitter website than Facebook in last year

The actual facts in the article show that the headline was patently false:

Over the last year, traffic to Twitter […] has increased by 1191 per cent, while traffic to Facebook has grown just 110 per cent

Facebook […] received 133 times more UK internet visits than Twitter

If the headline had read “Ten times more growth in traffic to Twitter website than Facebook in last year” or “133 times more traffic to Twitter website than Facebook in last year”, it would have been correct. I’m guessing that the headline writer omitted the word ‘growth’, presumably to save an inch of headline space, and turned the truth on its head: by a factor of a thousand.

The problem is that journalists are confusing a quantity and the time derivative of that quantity, and it bugs the heck out of me. Journalists who have a professional respect for punctuation, grammar and fact-checking seem to have a disdain for basic numeracy concepts like time derivatives. Do they not understand the difference, or do they think that we’re too dumb to notice?

I hear financial journalists trotting out that such and such tax would “raise 15 million pounds”. What, on the very morning it is introduced? No; we, the reader, are supposed to insert “per year” to compensate for the journalistic shorthand.

And here in the U.S., the terms “deficit” and “debt” are often used synonymously in the public discourse, where in fact, one is the derivative of the other. With record deficits and national debt looming, and astronomical numbers that we have a duty as citizens to try to comprehand, we need the help of journalists more than ever to help us make sense of the world.