February 29, 2012 • 3:53 pm

Earlier this week Full Fact looked into reports over rioters’ jail sentences following the disturbances in August last year.

The content of these reports was accurate as far as the figures from the Ministry of Justice were concerned. However, as one Full Fact reader pointed out, the wording used by some of the newspapers was incorrect.

This is how the various outlets reported the figures:

Telegraph and Financial Times: “Nearly 1,000 rioters have been given custodial sentences, lasting on average four times longer than those awarded for similar crimes in 2010″

Guardian: “The MoJ figures confirm the punitive approach that the courts have taken towards rioters with the 945 offenders who have been jailed given an average of 14.2 months. This is four times the average sentence length of 3.7 months handed down by the courts for similar offences in 2010.”

Press Association: “Judges handed out sentences almost four times as long as for those convicted of similar offences in 2010″

[Emphasis added in each case]

As the Ministry of Justice states, the correct figures for average sentences are 14.2 months for rioters’ sentences and 3.7 months for similar offenders in 2010.

The figure for the rioters is certainly four times as long as the 2010 figure. It is, however, not four times longer. To illustrate:


For a length to be four times as long as another, it must be equivalent to four lots of the smaller figure. For a length to be four times longer than another, it must be the equivalent of four lots of the smaller number in addition to the original figure as well. If the riot sentences were four times longer than the average of the previous year, they would actually be five times as long.

So as far as the figures from the Ministry of Justice are concerned, it is technically incorrect to state they show sentences for rioters four times longer than those for similar criminals in 2010. It shows they are four times as long, or three times longer.

The Press Association and Guardian avoided this; the Telegraph and Financial Times did not.

This is not the first time that the two measures have been used interchangeably. In summer last year the Mirror and the Times reported about a doctor who had been drink-driving. The Mirror said he was four times the limit while the Times said four times over the limit. The Mail even used both different measures interchangably in their article.

A closer look at the doctor’s breath-test (provided by the Times report) showed that he was nearly four times the limit rather than four times over the limit.

Whether or not readers are actually misled by the wording of the reports is another matter, however it is worth understanding the subtle differences in what the figures actually mean.

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