When I was a young (well, youngish) reporter, I worked for an editor who, presented with copy which stated, for example, that the number of burglaries had doubled, would say: "What does that mean? Doubled from what to what? From one to two?"
It was an injunction I have never forgotten, but one that the press often ignores, particularly when reporting health risks. Take the scare, widely reported on 10 June, over ibuprofen, a painkiller taken particularly by sufferers of arthritis. The Daily Mail blazed a headline across the top of its front page: "Warning over heart attack risk of painkiller used by millions". Inside, we were informed, on the basis of new research published in the British Medical Journal, that "regular use of the drug increases the chances of an attack by almost a quarter".
This was an almost meaningless statement. We need to know the chances of a heart attack among those who don't take the drug to have any understanding of the seriousness of the threat to those who do take it. The Mail did not produce any such figures. Nor did the Times. The Independent, however, reported that "the absolute increase in risk is small, translating to one extra patient suffering a heart attack for every 1,005 taking the drug". It also reported that an editorial in the BMJ had suggested that even this risk might not be real, partly because the researchers had inadequate information about the extent of smoking among the patients studied.
I am not arguing that the papers should have ignored this story or downplayed it. My point is a broader one. Most newspapers are unable to give their readers an adequate account of scientific, medical or social research findings because their editorial staff lack adequate grounding in statistics. A surprising number of reporters find it hard to express themselves clearly in words, but at least the papers employ literate sub-editors to make sense of their prose. Most sub-editors, however, are as innumerate as the writers.
Newspapers these days are full of graphs, charts and tables. A high proportion of their stories on health, crime, education and so on depend on various numerical claims: violent crime is up or A-level standards are down, for example. Yet in my experience most reporters, young and old, struggle even with simple percentages, and I do not know of any journalists' training scheme which gives serious instruction in statistics. If in future readers are to be convinced that newspapers are worth buying - after all, most reports and academic papers that make statistical claims are now easily accessible online - journalists will have to raise their numerical game.
I am surprised to learn from the journalists' trade magazine Press Gazette that my former boss Stephen Glover still insists he is intending to launch a national newspaper called the World. This mysterious publication - plans for which were revealed 18 months ago - would, we are told, have an upmarket circulation of roughly 100,000 and eschew tittle-tattle about celebrities.
According to Press Gazette, the World has just lost its managing director, Vicky Unwin. Glover, ex-editor of the Independent on Sunday, said she "simply didn't feel able to continue". I am not surprised, because she was unpaid and presumably had little managing to do. Perhaps now I have time on my hands, I shall apply to Glover for a position as an unpaid payroll clerk. Alternatively, I could join those journalists who are said to be "involved". Of these, Glover has named only Francis Wheen, biographer of Karl Marx and leading light at Private Eye.
Others cannot be identified "because they are working for other newspapers". Who are they? Journalism is a leaky and gossipy trade, but I have not heard or read the merest hint of a name. I know several journalists whom Glover admires, but all of them deny even being approached. The mystery deepens.
Some may also think it mysterious that the Daily Mail, for which Glover is a columnist and which provides most of his earned income, seems so relaxed about his plans to launch another paper. But think for a moment. As a mid-market paper, the Mail has to fight on two fronts: against the red tops nibbling at one end of its readership and the posh papers nibbling at the other. The latter threat is currently the more serious, as the Times and Telegraph increasingly adopt Mail techniques and a Mail agenda, and as posh papers generally abandon the broadsheet format.
What might deter those papers from invading the Mail's mid-market patch? The prospect of an upmarket, celeb-less rival like the World. The paper does not need actually to exist; the mere threat of it could be enough to deter the Times, Telegraph and Guardian from plunging too enthusiastically downmarket. Perhaps there is more to Glover's project than meets the eye. Or less.