It’s a wonderful day for watching reporters and U.S. Census PR people butcher statistics

The U.S. Census Bureau released the 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States (PDFs) which has already unleashed a rash of really bad reporting by journalists who likely avoided taking statistics courses in college. Sam Roberts of the New York Times kicked off things by randomly comparing unrelated statistics in the fun, but useless, way reporters do. (Example: “Americans are getting fatter, but now drink more bottled water per person than beer.”)

I can’t blame reporters, however. The PR folks at the Census Bureau encouraged this type of “make up your own findings” game with a misleading statistical mashup they created for the headline on their press release: “Nearly Half of our Lives Spent with TV, Radio, Internet, Newspapers according to Census Bureau Publication.”

Without ever reading the report, just by looking at that headline and reading three paragraphs of the release, I can tell you that it is a mis-leading mashup of statistics that do not conclude what they say it concludes.

Why do I think this? Well, part of the reason is that I remembered that Pew Research study from a few months ago that said we spend about three hours as day with such media — a lot, but not “half” our lives. Also, you can tell from a mile-off that the data does NOT take into account that time in which we are doing two things at once — reading a newspaper and listening to the radio while the TV is on in the background or, as I often do, using the Internet while listening to my XM radio. Without a formula that accounts for the unreduplicated hours we spend with each of of those individual media, there is no way to conclude we spend “half” our lives with those media aggregated.

Yet here’s how the Census Bureau PR folks came up with their headline:

“According to projections from a communications industry forecast, people will spend 65 days in front of the TV, 41 days listening to radio and a little over a week on the Internet in 2007. Adults will spend about a week reading a daily newspaper and teens and adults will spend another week listening to recorded music.

Real statisticians at the Census Bureau should be cringing when they read that press release and the news coverage today.

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  • I spend at least a week on the internet every month.

  • Rex Hammock

    I didn’t want to mess up this ranting post with the admission that I spend at least half of my life — even when considering the sleeping portion — on all those media. I have a little earphone with which I monitor a stream of the BBC overnight. Whenever I wake up and can’t sleep, listening to that for a few minutes usually knocks me out.