Do the Math

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to write an in-depth piece on a rare public school program that operated within the local maximum-security prison. It was, at least at the time, the only public school program that offered a traditional high school diploma — not GED — within a maximum-security prison.

It was a fascinating experience, visiting the prison, learning the rules around wardrobe and behavior (it was a men’s prison), then talking to young men who had been convicted of some incredibly serious crimes.

It was eye-opening to say the least, and it had the opportunity to be an incredible story for my portfolio, too, until I made a critical mistake.

The administrator told me it cost $100 a day to house a prisoner, so reducing recidivism would save $365,000 a year — more than the $337,600 spent annually on the program.

I printed his facts verbatim.

Only after the article went to print did I realize that $100/day would equal $36,500 a year, not $365,000 a year. That changes the story considerably.

It should have been an easy mistake to catch — if I had done the math, instead of trusting someone else’s numbers.

Journalists are infamous for being bad at math, but they shouldn’t be. Basic math is a critical component of everyday life, even for a writer.

I’m sorry to say, I made a similar mistake much more recently. I trusted a resume that said a person had worked at their company for 27 years. I had both the start and end date of the individual’s employment, so it would have been simple for me to figure out that he, in fact, worked there for 39 years. But I didn’t stop to do the math — and I ended up with a story that needed a correction.

The takeaway: Don’t take numbers for granted. Do the math yourself.