Update 1/31/12: The story online has been corrected with a correction issued. Kudos to the NYT for ensuring even a minor mistake like this gets fixed.
Two days ago, the New York Times published a good article summarizing much of the current debate and recent progress regarding air pollution monitoring and reporting in Beijing.
Unfortunately, there is an error in the fourth sentence of the article:
Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 “blue sky” days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year.
There are actually two errors here. First, Beijing reported 286 Blue Sky Days in 2011. 274 was simply their target for the year, which they achieved early and then exceeded. This is even stated clearly in the Xinhua article linked to directly from the NYT story. Second, even if Beijing had achieved 274 Blue Sky Days, this would not have been a record; the number of Blue Sky Days was above 274 in both 2009 and 2010.
The mistake doesn’t really impact the overall context or conclusions of the story, so from that perspective I suppose it can be considered minor. However, in my experience the Chinese are very quick to highlight small mistakes in Western media reports, and on this basis discredit entire articles (or even entire news sources). I worry that small mistakes like this undermine the impact of otherwise good reporting by Western journalists here.
I’m also just surprised something so basic got past the NYT’s fact checkers.