Monday, December 27, 2004

Bring Out Your Dead

Tolles is back and weighs in on my chiding the NYTs with this line:

In all, 1,067 people are said to have died trying to flee East Germany's Communist dictatorship. Are *said* to have died? What, is there some question that maybe they were actually magically transported to fantasy island?
Tolles points out:

"are said to have died" refers to the difficulty in determining the exact number of people killed. It's not a cop-out as to whether or not there were actually killings. I suspect that you know that.
True, true. But... Click read more
there are a couple of problems here. The NYT actually does a really good job of nailing these things down. Where the true number is unknown they will say something like: "While the exact number of dead is unknown" or "With more than XXX known dead" or something along those lines. Look at today's reporting re: the Tsunami, for example ("...killing more than 19,000"). They would never say: "over 19,000 are said to have died" precisely because that wording minimizes the deaths and places the emphasis on the "claim" of some number of dead.

Plus, the idea that the exact number isn't known is a little silly given the fact that we commonly use exact numbers for say the Vietnam War or the Civil War. There is no way those figures reach some transcendent level of accuracy while the number of people killed by the East German police is shrouded in mystery. There are commonly accepted numbers and we simply use them with the knowledge that they are reflecting order of magnitude rather than metaphysical certainty on the digit place.


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