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A quick note on sloppiness

From the article, “The Border of Madness,” in The Atlantic:

“More than 14,000 people have been killed in the almost three years since President Felipe Calderon mobilized the army to fight Mexico’s half-dozen major drug cartels.

Virtually none of these homicides has been solved….”

What’s the problem with these two sentences?

What does “Virtually none” actually mean?

14,000 is a big number. “Virtually none” suggests that some of the homicides have been solved, but it’s a sufficiently large number to call into question what the writer, Philip Caputo, considers to be “virtually none.”

It’s worrisome that this type of sloppiness and imprecision slipped past Caputo’s editor. So often, we use turns of phrase because they sound good… not because they convey facts accurately.


3 responses »

  1. Because they sound good…or because they let us get by without providing the hard facts that we haven’t taken the time to research.

    According to some people, this is virtually the most serious problem in certain fields of journalism today. 😉

    • Another perspective from someone who has written about Mexico is that he may be trying to be ‘as correct is possible’ given the circumstances and the topic.

      The reality is it would be virtually impossible to check the status on all of those crimes and see if any had resulted in a sentence. Impossible actually, unless you´d expect the writer to spend a good six-months to a year traveling through all the drug-lord hotspots thoughout Mexico and visiting jails (that´d be a hoot) and trying to get info from prosecutors or courts. Not only impossible, but physically dangerous for the journalist who could be assassinated just in the trying.

      Always two sides to the coin 🙂

      • Molly-
        Thanks for the visit and your feedback.
        I agree that it’s virtually impossible to check the status of all those crimes (much less secure 100% reliable information); however, I’m really uncomfortable with the ambiguity of what “virtually none” means. Does it mean 1, 10, 100, 1000? There are lots of challenges about reporting on Juarez, for sure.

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