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NPR takes a look at its story corrections

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

To err is human; to forgive - divine. To correct - well, that's our job. It is time for a slight correction. And today we are talking about numbers. Now, numbers might sound simple enough, but we actually mess them up a lot. In one story about Elon Musk buying Twitter, we mixed up millions and billions. In another on the national debt, we mixed up billions and trillions. I could go on. As a longtime statehouse reporter, I made many of these errors myself. But today we are going to talk this through. NPR producer Lexie Schapitl is here to help us out. Hey, Lexie.

DETROW: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So it kind of feels like numbers are one of our Achilles' heels here at NPR.

LEXIE SCHAPITL, BYLINE: I think that is definitely fair to say. Million and billion - that's a really common one. And this happens a lot when we're talking about money - large sums of money, budgets, etc. Other times, we'll leave off a zero - so a hundred thousand might turn into 10,000. Or somewhere else, maybe we add an extra zero where it shouldn't be and the opposite happens. And these are really easy mistakes to make, right? I mean, we're talking about just getting one letter wrong, moving a comma. And while they're tiny things grammatically, they make a really big difference in the scope of what we're talking about.

ANNE MONK: It's so astronomical. I mean, it's tremendous. It's not even in the ballpark.

SCHAPITL: Scott, I figured there was no one better to explain all of this to us, two working adult journalists, than a former elementary school teacher.

DETROW: I think that's the right instinct.

MONK: My name is Anne Monk. I'm a retired science education specialist. I worked in museums. I've taught at every grade level. Now I live on a ranch in the country and make mosaics and paint.

SCHAPITL: So Anne Monk, like she said, in the early 2000s, she worked at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. And what she did there, she developed curriculum for teachers to help their kids understand these subjects, like evolution and the history of the Earth. And, of course, these things span billions of years.

MONK: These numbers that we throw around in paleontology - millions and billions of years - are so huge. We have nothing to relate them to in real life.

SCHAPITL: So Anne made this worksheet. It's called How Big is a Billion? And it's got all of these examples in there of how a student can conceptualize a billion years. And so she asks questions like, how long would it take for you to count to a billion? Or how far would you walk in a billion-step hike? So, Scott, why don't we try one of these? Are you ready to do some math?

DETROW: No, but yes. I think I have no choice.

SCHAPITL: OK. So you're trying to save a billion dollars.

DETROW: Yes.

SCHAPITL: And saving a hundred dollars a day. How many days would that take you?

DETROW: Hundred dollars a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION'S GREATEST HITS BAND'S "JEOPARDY")

DETROW: I feel like my first answer was a thousand days, but I think that's not actually true at all. So I don't know. I'll say 10,000 days. But we are in the gray zone where, truly, I have no idea.

SCHAPITL: So I'm actually going to do the math myself and double check this. But it's actually 10 million days.

DETROW: Ten million days.

SCHAPITL: Right?

DETROW: A hundred dollars a day.

SCHAPITL: 'Cause 10 million.

DETROW: I guess that makes sense.

SCHAPITL: It is 10 million days. We have now checked via iPhone calculator. So you've got 10 million days divided by 365 days in a year gets you - I'll just tell you this one - gets you to roughly 27,397 years.

MONK: It's going to take approximately 304 generations of your descendants saving a hundred dollars a day for your family line to get to the point of having a billion dollars.

SCHAPITL: So, by comparison, you would get to a million dollars in just about 27 years, which makes it seem like, oh, piece of cake, saving a million dollars.

DETROW: A million-dollar deficit - my neighbor down the street might have a million-dollar deficit because they just built a big, fancy house. But for, you know, the national budget to have a billion- or a trillion-dollar deficit, it's not even in the same league. It is so huge.

SCHAPITL: The good news, Scott, is Anne had some advice for us. And, you know, it's very simple.

MONK: You just have to check and check and double check.

SCHAPITL: Which sounds like it could come straight from our editors' mouths.

DETROW: Lexie Schapitl, thank you so much for helping to enlighten us and helping to correct us.

SCHAPITL: Oh, anytime, Scott.

DETROW: We always try to get it right. When we don't, you can let us know at corrections@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.