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Posted at 3:47 PM ET, 12/ 7/2010

A "2 percent" error in The Post's lead story

By Andy Alexander

As noted in a recent ombudsman’s column on numerical errors in news stories, a seemingly small imprecision can make a huge difference. Readers made that point today about a mistake in the first paragraph of the lead story on The Post’s front page.

It said the tentative tax accord reached between President Obama and congressional Republicans would “cut payroll taxes by 2 percent for every American worker through the end of next year.” Later, the story said “the deal calls for a simple 2 percent reduction in the 6.2 percent payroll tax that workers pay on income up to $106,800 to finance Social Security.”

Actually, the agreement calls for reducing the Social Security payroll tax 2 percentage points, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. As readers were quick to note, the difference between 2 percent and 2 percentage points is significant.

“If the Social Security payroll tax goes from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, that is a 32 percent cut,” said one online commenter.

“The story says twice, including in the lead, that the payroll tax would be cut by 2 percent, when it fact it would be cut 2 percentage points -- a reduction of 32 percent from the current 6.2 percent rate,” e-mailed Larry Foster, a Washington journalist with Platts, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies. “This is a key error in an important story and it’s disappointing to see the Post get such a fundamental fact flat wrong when other media are getting it right.”

The story was written by Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray.

Greg Schneider, The Post’s national economy and business editor, acknowledged “it should have been percentage points.” He said the story was written as “2 percent” by the authors “and I didn’t catch it” in the editing process.

The Post’s internal Stylebook warns against confusing the two. “Be careful to distinguish between percent and percentage points,” it says. “In a group of 100 students, if the number taking a certain course rises from 10 to 20, enrollment in the course has risen by 100 percent, but student participation has risen by 10 percentage points."

“If a president’s favorable rating in the polls declines from 60 percent to 40 percent, it has declined by 20 percentage points but 33 percent,” it continues. “If interest rates rise from 8 percent to 10 percent, it is a 25 percent increase.”

In contrast to The Post’s story, here’s how it was correctly reported in today’s New York Times story: “It would reduce the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax on all wage earners by two percentage points for one year, putting more money in the paychecks of workers.”

By Andy Alexander  | December 7, 2010; 3:47 PM ET
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When the ombudsman writes about this kind of gross, silly error, it might be interesting if he would tell us how many people actually read the story without understanding the problem. Two reporters shared the byline; neither of them knows the difference between a percent and a percentage point. Neither does their editor. Over the course of the day and evening, how many other copy editors, copy desk chiefs, layout editors and even phone clerks read this story, maybe even calculated the change in their own take-home pay, without grasping the core concept?

Posted by: none12 | December 7, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

It is inaccurate to call the Post on this. I suggest that the Ombudsman consider the many stories regarding extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

The top rate was cut BY several percentage points to 35%. I've yet to hear this described as a 10% reduction for high earners, despite the fact that is the relative cut.

The employee's portion of the payroll tax is 6.2%. It is being temporarily cut by 2%. Incidentally, if nitpickers are going to get on this, they should probably note that this is actually a 16% cut in the amount of tax paid--the employer's contribution is not affected. This is also the case for any self-employed individual. Calling it a 32% tax cut is inaccurate. Messr. Foster has made a key error.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 14, 2010 6:13 AM | Report abuse

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