Sunday, June 19, 2005

Welcome to "Go Figure: Making Numbers Count"!

This is a complement to my web site at

Here you will find plenty of columns on issues related to numeracy, a specialty of mine since 1997, when I began writing a column for Copley Newspapers called "By the Numbers." Since 2001, I have led workshops and webinars called "Go Figure: Making Numbers Count."

I am devoted to inspire others to approach numbers more competently and confidently. For a glimpse of how my mathematical mind works, see

Reviews of my numeracy training can be found at

For additional columns on numbers-related topics, send me an e-mail ( and I will direct you to the relevant links online.

Friday, June 17, 2005

June 2005

With context, bolstering your story-telling quality is no contest

By Matt Baron

One of the best pieces of humor that I encountered growing up came from an unlikely source: the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the well-worn paperback that I’d flip through from time to time, there was a listing for the tallest man in history, Robert Wadlow. A photograph complemented his staggering stats at various stages in his short (well, brief) life. The picture showed a bespectacled Robert, attired dapperly in what appears to be a living room, as he towers over a brother.

Here was the kicker: The photo caption parenthetically pointed out that Robert was the one in glasses.

For all I know, the caption writer was earnestly endeavoring to direct readers’ attention to the record-breaking exceedingly tall guy. Hey, let’s ensure there’s no confusion. More likely, I suspect, this was a ray of fun amid the tedium of assembling all the book’s facts and figures.

It has been at least 20 years since I’ve looked at the photo for the umpteenth time. But I can still see it in my mind’s eye—how Robert always brought to mind President Woodrow Wilson, how his brother had matinee-idol looks, how Robert hovered over a chandelier.

Those details remain vivid, but until I did a quick Internet search, I was hard-pressed to guess within even a few inches of Robert’s 8-foot-11-inch height.

The point is as old as the hills—that a picture is worth 1,000 words, that we are visual creatures, that “showing, not telling” is a story-telling essential.

Now for a point that may be new to you: we have an absolute responsibility not to leave any number on its own, as if just by its mere, mute presence, it can tell any kind of story. This is particularly true when we don’t have a photograph handy to drive home a given point.

Yet we do it all the time.

We tell you that there were 55 cow-tipping incidents last weekend in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, or 44% of U.S. households watch the evening news, or that water consumption is going up 30% over the next 20 years. As if any of that tells any kind of a story.

What’s missing, of course, is context. How many cow tippings are typical in Stevens Point? Is 44% more or less than in the past for evening news-watchers? What other factors, such as population, are projected over the next two decades so we may gauge if the water consumption claim is even newsworthy?

Insistence on putting numbers in context is at the heart of Go Figure-ing and Making Numbers Count. I stress it even more than my burgeoning crusade to reduce our society’s sloppy overindulgence in the vague “several,” which in itself is a form of context neglect and abuse.

What makes contextlessness (yeah, I made the word up) so inexcusable is that it can be so easily fixed with two power tools. They are:

Tool I: A wisely chosen word or few words.

Tool II: A wisely worded sentence.

That’s it—it’s that simple!

Now, for the hard parts: Which word? And which sentence?

As for the wisely chosen word, in the end it is subjective. But just a little homework on the topic at hand will give you the word and the sentence to elevate your writing. For example, consider this contextlessness report:

“Kicker Zach Columbo was cut Tuesday from the football team. He made 11 of 16 field-goal attempts through the team’s first 10 games.”

I’ve seen stories in which a reporter makes wrong assumptions and inserts “only” before “11” to proclaim that therein lurked the problem. Only problem is, the “only” was misplaced—the nearly 70-percent conversion rate was solid.

Setting aside other issues such as possible personality clashes with teammates or other factors not necessarily reflected in his on-field numbers, at the very least your job is to find out how other kickers in the league are faring. Is Columbo above average, below average? By how much?
A little more digging can turn up other relevance: How many of his successful field goals have come from close range and in the comfy confines of an indoor stadium? What has he done lately that might have prompted his firing?

Now you might have a report like this:

“Despite having a field-goal percentage that is slightly higher than the league norm, kicker Zach Columbo was booted Tuesday from the football team.

On Sunday, for the third week in a row, Columbo kicked his place-holder in the head and whiffed entirely on field goal tries that would have provided his team with last-second wins. Teammates said Columbo, on his way out of the locker room, vowed he would see an eye doctor about double-vision problems he’s been experiencing in high-pressure situations.”

What brought this all to mind was a recent story in a major daily newspaper on water consumption going up 30 percent over a 20-year period in a certain area. The increase was described as “whopping” and “soaring.” But take a few deep breaths, maybe even a sip of water, and then you’ll see the average annual growth in water consumption is not even 1 ½ percent (factoring in compounding growth).

I won’t even delve into the population growth that is projected over that time, which, as the story itself acknowledged, meant that the per capita water consumption could actually decline.

So “whopping” is more like wimpy and “soaring” is just plain silly. Seems this story’s equation was along the lines of (Really Slow News Day) X (Really Bad Math)=A Really Questionable Story.

BARON BIT: Be careful SHAV-ing. That’s Super Hero Action Verb-ing a development by trotting out words like “soaring” or “plummeting”. A 3-percent shift simply doesn’t qualify, though a 30-percent change (in a much shorter time span than 20 years) may well enter the SHAV zone.

March 2005

Politics By the Numbers: Call the candidate’s bluff, coax specifics

By Matt Baron

Have you ever witnessed a political race that wasn’t plastered with every number imaginable—and even some numbers that border on the unimaginable?

Me neither.

Now in the midst of covering three communities that are all in the throes of political transition, I am inundated with numbers to the left, right and even moderate center.

Only a scant minority of those figures will ever make it into a story. And when they do, they need to relate back to people in some fashion. It’s not enough to refer to the property tax rate, or gang crime, or economic growth, or cutting programs for senior citizens.

What does the tax rate mean to the average Joe? What is the impact of gang crime, economic growth or the elimination of certain programs on your readers?

Beyond that overriding principle, it’s imperative to coax specifics out of candidates and their mouthpieces, and to do it early and often. Pay close attention not only to the content of their responses, but the manner in which they respond. Are they forthcoming, or are they evasive? The answer to that question will help guide you on how much weight or credibility to give either side.

By the way, candidates are fond of talking about tax rates. Be sure to convert those rates into dollars—higher property values trigger larger tax bills—so that you relate the issue back to that often-overlooked entity known as people.

Common Sense Test

Last month, during a Go Figure seminar, I posed the following question during the “Golympics” game as three teams pitted their statistical wits against one another. For the first time in about a dozen such games over the past three years, someone gave the correct answer on the first try. Now you take a shot at it:

On election eve in mid-April, the mayor releases statistics showing that sales tax revenue for his community grew 8 percent in March over the previous month. He touts the news as proof that his economic policies are helping turn the local economy around. What fact, which the mayor does not mention, would you want to include in a story? (The answer is at the end of the column.)

Debunking an Oscar Myth

A recent article in the New Yorker gets my Academy Award for Truth in Oscar-Related Numerical Reporting.

Writer Daniel Radosh skewers the silly mantra, repeated over the past 20-plus years, that the Oscars are watched by a billion people. Radosh lays out the calculations in simple detail. Last year, 43.5 million people in the United States watched the show. Noting that number is about 15 percent of the country’s population, Radosh allows that extrapolating the proportion to the global population (about 6.3 billion) would bring the viewing audience to nearly one billion.

Except there are some more-than-slight problems, such as language barriers and limited satellite and cable broadcasting audiences in many of the 150 countries where the show is beamed.

“If one uses some generous estimates (is it possible for every man, woman, and child in Russia to get to a TV?), the total potential audience for the Oscars is around two billion,” Radosh writes.

“Fifteen percent of two billion is only three hundred million. Few other countries track television audiences the way the United States does, so solid data are hard to come by, but the evidence isn’t promising. For instance, of the 715 million Chinese who could have tuned in last year, only one percent did.”

Alas, he quotes a source who offers an estimate of Oscar viewership at “several hundred million.” You may recall last month’s “Go Figure” diatribe on the perils of “several,” a fudge figure that typically ranges from three to nine.

ANSWER: Leap years aside, March has 10 percent more days than the month before (February), so the 8-percent “increase” means that sales tax revenue actually declines, based on a daily average.

A story in the late 1990s, reporting month-to-month revenue changes from Illinois riverboat casinos, actually made the gaffe of touting an increase in March, compared to February. Beyond the absence of common sense, the comparison also ignored the more apt practice of comparing results on a year-to-year basis (for instance, comparing March 2005 with March 2004).

February 2005

Place value on your story telling—don’t settle for “several”

By Matt Baron

Batman has The Joker and The Riddler. The Boston Red Sox have the New York Yankees. And I’ve got Several.

All right, so that was a cheap way of working myself into the same paragraph as the caped crusader and my beloved World Champion Bosox. But anyone who has heard me rant about the scourge that is several knows that I view the nebulous numerical approximation as a formidable obstacle to making numbers count.

Just how much or how many is several, anyway?

Do you see a single number, center-stage? Or do you see a chorus line of numbers high-kicking this way and that for your attention? Take a poll of several people—I’ll leave it to you to determine how many that is—and see what they say.

Guaranteed you’ll get two things:

*Any one or more of a variety of looks, from befuddled to bemused to downright annoyed at the random absurdity of the question.

*A surprisingly wide spectrum of opinions. (Mostly, it spans anywhere from three to nine, though when I poll people, sometimes they tread into double-digits.)

If you’re looking for precision, the dictionary isn’t much help. As “several” relates to numbers, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers three definitions: “more than one” and “more than two but fewer than many” are the first two, but in drops the curve ball “being a great many.”


With all of several’s evident shortcomings, we still allow this shady character to creep its way into our stories. The word especially comes up when reporting:

*Time elements

“Several months ago, the city council banned common sense from all financial decisions… Several years ago, a car accident sent Jones to the hospital…”

*Crowd sizes

“Several citizens complained about the dog catcher… Several hundred protesters gathered outside the ventriloquist’s house, chanting `Dummy, dummy!’…Several thousand people attended the political rally.”


“Several million dollars needs to be slashed from the general budget… The business has monthly expenses amounting to several thousand dollars…”

*Stories that are complex or murky in nature

“The labor union cited several concerns about work conditions, including loud disco music… Several factors prompted the police chief to resign, though he declined to detail any of them…”

As you can tell, the problem is compounded exponentially when we hitch trailers to “several”—words like thousand, million and billion. And, hey, do a search of “several trillion” at Google and see what pops up.

What might seem like a minor distinction when using the word on its own can create an enormous gray area. The order of magnitude simply magnifies the fundamental problem.

When you encounter the word, you can be sure that one, or more, of the following factors are at play:

*The writer is lazy. He knows he should get a specific number but he can’t be bothered.

*The source is hazy. The writer tries to get a specific number but the source is either willfully withholding the information for some reason or is simply unsure of the figure.

*The situation is crazy. Sometimes, there’s just no way of knowing the specific number. This comes up in coverage of fires, as deadline looms while flames are still doing their damage and the beleaguered fire chief isn’t sure if everyone is safely outside, let alone the estimated extent of damage.

No matter what the reason for using “several,” the end result isn’t pretty. Depending on the varied preconceptions of our audience, we stray from telling a story into the realm of multiple-choice interpretations. Whether they consciously realize it or not, what looks like “four or five” to Reader A may strike Reader B as “about 10.”

Though we know it’s hard work to make things seem so simple, good story telling can become great when vivid details carry the audience along with seeming ease. Conversely, muddled and murky writing undermines an otherwise good story. Instead of a clear view of the road, the audience gets a foggy windshield.

If all of the preceding points are not enough to steer you away from “several,” then consider a few extreme examples that illustrate the word’s limitations.

Would a bank ever cash a check for several thousand dollars? Would you ever tell someone you had several children? If a doctor told you that you had several months to live, would you fail to press him for more specifics?

No, no, and not on your life. So what makes these premises so ridiculous? In every instance, we apply inherent value in each unit of measure. When we place that kind of value on our stories, it demands more from us than trotting out “several” at the slightest lazy, hazy or crazy obstacle.

BARON BIT: In sales, I’ve heard it said, “a confused mind says `no.’” In much the same way, readers will rightly reject a story that is confusing. To extend the sales analogy, make your stories so clear that they’ll be something people will gladly “buy into.”

January 2005

Sassy stats can beguile, so tackle numbers with strong context

By Matt Baron

Of the thousands upon thousands of stories I’ve written, and the tens of thousands more that I’ve read, a troubling number have been disturbing. And an even more daunting number have included at least one statistic.

But only one has ever begun with the words “a disturbing statistic,” let alone had the audacity to use the phrase in connection with a college football game. Brace yourself for the lead in its entirety, as reported by the Associated Press in late October 2004:

“A disturbing statistic emerged from Nebraska’s film study yesterday of its 45-21 loss at Kansas State: 33 missed tackles. Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove says if those tackles had been made, Kansas State would have had only about half of the 418 yards it amassed against the Huskers.”

Beyond the obvious point—that Nebraska Cornhusker football just ain’t what it used to be—there are at least five “Go Figure” lessons lurking in that paragraph. To make sure we don’t repeat the Nebraska D’s glaring deficiency, in a journalistic sense, let’s tackle those lessons one at a time.

1. If you’re going to start a story with the words “a disturbing statistic,” be ready to back up the hackneyed phrase with something truly disturbing. Whether the 33 missed tackles qualifies as “truly disturbing” is debatable, and will be addressed further in a later point.

2. Rather than using “disturbing” to modify “statistic,” come up with something a little fresher—as in something that hasn’t been used about a half-million times already. And, please, refrain from “daunting” and “troubling”—those references in the lead were most decidedly tongue-in-cheek.

3. Be willing to take a chance with a new slant. Rather than trot out the same old, second-day story statistics that you might find in the wake of any football game, the AP writer heard the missed-tackles figure from the team’s defensive coordinator and ventured into new ground with the off-the-beaten path angle.

So kudos to the writer for trying something new.

4. If you have the guts to apply Lesson 3, have the presence of mind to supply some context, too. In the football story, that was lacking on a few fronts.

For one thing, there is no clarification of what constitutes a missed tackle. How close would a defender need to be in order to be considered a failed would-be tackler? Does the stat count only those defenders who get at least a hand on the ball carrier?

And on another contextual note, let’s circle back to the use of “disturbing statistic” in the first place. Are 33 missed tackles really “disturbing”? Or are they just about average? Maybe it’s an “encouraging statistic” because the team had been missing 47 tackles a game and the conference average is 39 misses. Without any point of reference, we are adrift.

5. When you see a statistic, ask it: Are you objective or subjective?

Within the football story’s context, the 33 missed tackles—and therefore the assertion that “about half” of the yards gained came after those misses—are clearly subjective measurements.

A memory device for such data is to call them Subjectively Arrived-at Statistics (SAS). Extend the acronym to “sassy,” which means improperly forward or bold, and you get an even more vivid picture of the hazards they pose.

By contrast, the “418 yards amassed” by Kansas State is an example of an objective statistic—it’s a figure that multiple sources can agree upon based on observation.

Of course, the ideal story incorporates rock-solid objective data with well-reported, context-filled figures that nobody else has even thought to provide.

Give Yourself A Break

Any journalist interested in gaining a firmer grip on using numbers ought to read “Give Me A Break,” by John Stossel, co-host of ABC’s 20/20 program. The book provides a fascinating account into Stossel’s journalistic odyssey.

Of particular interest is his uphill battle against skeptical producers to report numbers in a responsible way. In a special that ranked various dangers, called “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?”, Stossel reports the top danger isn’t any chemical or multisyllabic disease. What do you think he found to be the No. 1 danger? (Answer at end of column.)

Killing a Myth

It is an oft-told tale: a loved one fights off death longer than anyone predicted, and observers credit the perseverance to a yearning to reach that next birthday or to see family members for one last Christmas.

In Sports Illustrated’s wonderful lead story picking the Boston Red Sox as Sportsmen of the Year, loyal fan George Sumner, 79, fights cancer long enough to see his team win the World Series.

So do people, in general, have the ability to stiff-arm death long enough to get to that next milestone? Heart-warming, anecdotal stories notwithstanding, the answer appears to be “no.”

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers who dug through more than 300,000 cancer deaths in Ohio between 1989 and 2000 found no trend toward such a phenomenon.

Kudos to study co-author Donn Young, a statistician and research scientist at Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. He pursued the analysis after finding he was the only naysayer in a story touting patients’ ability to delay their deaths.

Young said “wishful thinking and selective memory”—those enemies of objective statistics—are partly to blame for the widespread, but errant, notion that people have the ability to put off their deaths as special occasions approach.

Answer: Poverty.

December 2004

Eschew Obfuscation…Let Your Readers Chew on Clarity

By Matt Baron

Herewith is a body of writing that carries the sole aim of rendering its various and sundry points with an abundance of clear communication.

In other (much better) words, this is a column about clarity.

Please forgive the annoying first paragraph. I didn’t have my jargon-check activated. But what if I were to ask you to walk away for a few minutes and then repeat that silliness to someone else—and then they’d have the wonderful task of writing a story to appear in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Like the hilarious results of the “telephone game”—in which a circle of individuals go around whispering a phrase into the ear of the person next to them—we would likely read a dramatically different account than the one we delivered.

So who would be at fault?

Answer: The dude or dudette with the byline.

While it is tempting to fling at least some blame in the general direction of the techno-speak source, the bottom-line responsibility rests with the writer. We are not court reporters, faithfully quoting every nook and cranny of someone’s speech. We are news reporters, trimming the weeds of everyday language so that our readers can actually see a well-groomed garden.

In any kind of story telling, conveying the message clearly is paramount.

Your sources need to know that you have the ability to hear what they are saying, extract the relevant information accurately, and then relate it coherently to readers. And your readers ought to be able to get past the second paragraph without furrowing their brow. Some may even look forward to the third paragraph, bless their hearts.

In writing about all things numerical, jargon is one of the foremost enemies of clarity.

So don’t write about “tax abatements.” Focus on folks’ checkbooks. What does it mean to their bottom line? And is that abatement really so unusual, or is it fancy financial record-keeping? It may not even merit a story. I’ve taken a pass on abatements in two communities the past two years because I found it misleading, confusing and, ultimately, much ado about nothing to the average citizen.

Another example: When you talk to your spouse about major purchases, do you refer to them as “capital spending”? Probably not. So treat your readers the same way and use words they can readily latch onto.

Of course, it behooves sources to communicate in a manner that leaves little room for reporters to make mistakes. Take Jeremy Siegel, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has enjoyed a good relationship with reporters, he said in an interview at the World Business Forum in Chicago last month.

While other professors shy away from journalists, Siegel estimated he has been misrepresented in “no more than 1 percent” of stories in which he has appeared.
The key? “It’s a matter of speaking clearly,” said Siegel.

Moments later, he elaborated: “The most important thing is avoiding lingo and technical words that we insiders use. I try to avoid that all the time. You’ve got to be able to express it in English.”

The approach appears to have worked fairly well for Siegel. His book, Stocks for the Long Run, was tapped by the Washington Post as one of the ten best investment books of all time and he is sought after by numerous media outlets.

While we’re on the business front, here’s a memo from Jack Welch: follow the money flow.

Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric until his retirement in 2001, was another speaker at the World Business Forum. In response to my question about what kind of data reporters overlook and overstate in their stories, Welch said company earnings get too much play and cash flow too little.

“Cash is really king,” Welch added. “We used to say cash flow, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction were the measurements. And cash flow is sort of boring to journalists…the media loves to write about the short-term earnings.”

Reporters aren’t the only ones who have been out of whack in this respect. Welch said that undervaluing the significance of cash flow has not received enough attention from business analysts, and that oversight has contributed to some recent business collapses.

BARON BIT: Make sure statistics actually reveal something of interest. Consider David Letterman’s jibe: “USA Today has come out with a new survey - apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population.”

October 2004

Sez Who?: Slaying the “widely regarded” beast

By Matt Baron

This column is widely regarded as one of the most impressive pieces of work in the galaxy.

No, of course it’s not.

But my mom lives in Plymouth, Mass., and she thinks I have a decent point once in awhile. And I know at least one guy out in California who takes the time to read it all the way through, if he’s not too busy. Hey, they’re 3,000-plus miles apart, so you might say there is some widely regarding a-happening.

This exaggerated, grammatically questionable and totally made-up example is brought to you by me, humbled sponsor of a sloppy writing decision a few weeks ago. And upon closer examination, it was a sloppy math mistake, too.

It came in a story on a town trustee who planned to resign in the near future. To give readers context, I mentioned that the trustee was “widely regarded…as a viable candidate” to run against the mayor in the spring elections.

Shortly after the story’s publication, the mayor’s spokesman challenged the choice of words. Where was the survey of residents that supported this “widely regarded” phrasing? It didn’t help my cause that a few months earlier I had lectured this same spokesman for using the vague “several” in remarks to me.

At least “several” has a generally accepted finite range. Most folks think somewhere between three and nine when they say, or hear, “several,” that nebulous non-numerical. But what is one to make of this “widely regarded” beast?

I had to admit to the spokesman that he was right, that it was a poor choice of words, and if I had to write the story again, I would choose different words. Of the town’s 85,000 residents, I could not say with any certainty that the trustee was “widely regarded” as a viable candidate for dogcatcher, Man of the Year, or anything else, for that matter.

So what happened? How did the phrase, which suggests an all-knowing author is at the keyboard, slip its way into my story? And how did it get past my editor? I’ve mentioned the phenomenon in a previous Go Figure column ( It’s the hazard of falling prey to a quantitative term snaking its way into a story by wearing non-numerical clothing.

These are Cuties—so-called because they stand for Q.T., or Quantitative Terms. Without even realizing it, we express a mathematical assertion with words such as:

Consistently, constantly, conventionally, customarily, frequently, habitually, incessantly, increasingly, infrequently, intermittently, mostly, normally, occasionally, oftentimes, periodically, regularly, religiously, repeatedly, routinely, seasonally, sporadically, traditionally, typically, usually.

When I compiled that list nearly two years ago, I didn’t think of “widely regarded.” More specifically, I didn’t think of “widely.” After all, merely using the word “regarded” doesn’t have nearly the same charge on its own as when it is paired with “widely.”

It also raises the question, “Regarded by whom?” And that question illuminates the fact that we have a weak, passive sentence in the making. The writing would certainly improve by changing it to the active tense.

For example: “In the past week, since the trustee began telling citizens of his plan to step down, he said about 10 residents have urged him to run for town president.” And the next step would be to get as many of those supporters’ names as possible, track them down, and ask them what they think of the trustee’s plans.

You might be thinking, “But it’s unrealistic to demand that you be able to quantify how many people view this guy as a mayoral candidate!”

The flip side of that argument is this one: It’s unfair to paint such broad strokes without citing a source or having anything beyond a “gut feeling,” which is a fancy way of saying “personal opinion.”

If you are struggling to back up a statement, then it’s time to revise the statement so that it’s something you can stand behind.

Who knows? By following this advice, you may become widely regarded as one of the foremost writers in the world. Just don’t ask me to vouch for it.

BARON BIT: Acknowledge the blossoming flowers, even when weeds surround them. The same spokesman who rightly took me to task for the goofy “widely regarded” phrase leveled criticisms on another story that I believe were totally out of line. While it was tempting to dismiss all of his feedback, I learned a valuable lesson by remaining open to the possibility that he was on the mark about at least one concern.

September 2004

Be Skeptical of Selective Statistics

By Matt Baron

You may have heard it said before that each of us is a star in our own life’s story, but merely a background character in others’ lives. We might be a strong supporting player or simply play a cameo role. It all depends on who is behind the camera.

A humorous spin on this perspective is “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.” The two characters merit only passing mention in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but playwright Tom Stoppard took that fragment and in 1967 expanded it to create an entirely different tale.

The same principle plays out with the stories we tell, whether in the media or at the dinner table. The spinmeisters involved in the race for U.S. president load us up with varying emphases on various topics, from tax cuts to job creation to the ongoing military operations in Iraq.

In sports, you can use the same body of statistics to prop up or tear down a player. The Chicago White Sox have a player named Jose Valentin who is one of the top home run hitters in the American League, particularly among shortstops. He’s also struck out more often than most players, batted for a paltry average, and made more than his share of defensive mistakes.

So which Jose Valentin do you want to talk about?

In business, you can use the same data to hail a company’s growth or shine a light on its struggles. A classic example is when a business is said to have experienced a surge or decline in profits compared to a previous period of time.

So, for example, instead of raking in $80 million of profit, Company XYZ profits by “only” $40 million. Meanwhile, Company ABC-azon reduces the amount it loses from a jillion to merely $100 billion. What a success!

Of course, those are extreme examples, but you get the idea.

Recently a newspaper reported on the number of murder rate in a major Midwestern city. It focused on persisting trends in which more people were killed during the hot summer months than other times of the year. Contained in the same story—buried, really—was brief mention that the number of homicides so far this year was significantly lower than the same year-ago period.

The story very easily could have focused on that drop, with the unsurprising correlation of heat and violence relegated to background character status.

Keep Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in mind as you approach your next story. Those “throw-away” remarks and minor mentions may contain the kernel of the less-known but more interesting tale to tell.

Earlier this year, a Chicago television station missed its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern opportunity. The station broadcast a segment on what they reported to be an upward trend in planned C-sections.

In the report, a source said that physicians and nurses comprise a large proportion of those who opt for planned C-sections (as opposed to the more common emergency C-sections). Instead of examining that intriguing angle—after all, these are the same medical personnel who are often caring for birthing mothers—the story simply moseyed along.

Here’s where the reporter could have asked some questions: What proportion of planned C-sections are done on doctors and nurses? And why is that?

Beyond that oversight, the story also failed to provide basic context, such as the percentage of births that are C-section (it’s about 25 percent) and the percentage of C-sections that are planned—an amazing omission when you consider the entire thrust of the story was that they were on the rise.

BARON BIT: For an engaging, if politically loaded, look at federal spending, check out and click on the Oreo animation. I cannot endorse or condemn the content, because I do not know enough about the background behind the figures cited by Ben Cohen of ice cream purveyor Ben & Jerry’s. But the illustrations he uses in the animation are an excellent lesson in how we all as storytellers can simplify complex topics.

May 2004

Keep your eye on the numerical ball: Focus on the main thing

By Matt Baron

Do you major in the minors?

That is, do you focus on details that are secondary to the main point, at the expense of conveying the main point?

It happens all too often on the radio, when sports announcers get so enraptured with their own delivery of minutiae that they go minutes on end without so much as mentioning the score.

A basketball team scores, or the action breaks for a time out, and you’d think they’d humor us with that little detail. Increasingly, however, they act as if we’re also watching the game on TV—where the score is permanently stamped on the screen along with 27 other statistical charts.

In a game this season, a seasoned Chicago Bulls radio broadcaster went more than five minutes without mentioning the score as the clock wound below one minute remaining in the fourth quarter.

And last season, an otherwise-stellar Chicago White Sox radio broadcast team went more than 10 minutes without sharing the score—even as they rattled off a summary of scores in other Major league action that night.

If those blind spots are aggravating when it comes to something as frivolous as grown men playing children’s games, then what must it be like for readers when we major in the minors?

This is especially true with budget stories.

Sometimes, we get caught up in laying out the nuances of a specific program or line item that we neglect to include the big budget picture. So be sure to include the overall budget amount, and the increase or decrease from the previous year’s budget (or actual spending, if you can get a handle on that figure).

For more on budget coverage, see

Beware of `Dustistics'

From time to time, I like to take informal surveys on random topics. Four years ago, after I idly mentioned Chester Arthur’s name to four friends and none had the foggiest notion who he was, I broadened my inquiry to more than 50 people. Fewer than 10 knew his place in American history.

More than a few thought I was pulling their leg when I told them he was a U.S. president. Of those who knew that fact, it was almost as bad as not knowing at all—they credited their knowledge to a plot twist in one of the “Diehard” movies in which a school was named after him.

I found that people were far more likely to know Arthur’s predecessor, James Garfield, mostly because he died from gunshot wounds during his first year in office.

My latest foray into random quizville is asking folks the current U.S. population, to the closest 10-million mark. I popped the question recently at a newspaper association conference and within moments knew I had hit upon this year’s “Go Figure” version of Chester Arthur. Common answers were 250 million and 270 million, probably due in large part because those are numbers that pop up even today in stories.

So what would you say? (Answer is at the end of the column).

This is a classic case of dusty statistics, or what I’ll call “dustistics.” It’s the tendency for us to trot out old numbers, despite the dynamic nature of life. In other words, things change and so should the numbers that chronicle those things.

A few weeks ago I came upon a dustistic in a new book about leadership. The author discussed Ray Kroc’s success developing McDonald’s into an international franchising giant and noted that there were more than 21,000 restaurants worldwide with the golden arches. Alas, the footnote referred to a book written more than 15 years earlier.

Now that’s dusty—as reflected by the fact that there are more than 31,000 McDonald’s restaurants today.

One common dustistic is getting an age wrong because a source has celebrated a birthday or two since we last checked in. That’s why it just makes sense to get someone’s date of birth, whether they’re a criminal with court dates that sprawl across months in the calendar or a Boy Scout who may be the subject of a follow-up story in the future.

Compounding the Mistake

To err is human, to err in admitting your error is just plain embarrassing.

That’s what happened in late January, when The Daily News in New York ran a correction of a story that incorrectly asserted the Big Apple was on track to raise $1 billion in parking ticket revenues this fiscal year.

“We should have checked our math,” wrote David Saltonstall. “In fact, the ticket revenues will be closer to $540 million.”

Later in the mea culpa, Saltonstall stated “all the other statistics in (the previous) story were correct.” But he should have checked his math again. In the very next paragraph, he wrote, “From July through October, parking tickets jumped 18%, to 2.8 million from 2.3 million.”

He had made one of the most common statistical blunders—dividing the difference (500,000) by the new number (2.8 million) instead of the original number (2.3 million). The percentage change, then, is actually 22%.

BARON BIT: The answer to the U.S. population question: 290 million. A more precise figure as of May 2004 was 293 million, so we will soon need to dust off this number with the round figure of 300 million. For moment-by-moment updates, see

March 2004

Context boosted with an open mind on late-breaking numbers

By Matt Baron

Numbers don’t angrily call you on the phone when you take them out of ______, but the people they affect just might.

This is one of the easiest questions in the “Golympics” game I’ve devised for seminars. The game blends “Go Figure” pointers with a competitive atmosphere like the Olympics.

The fill-in-the-blank word, of course, is “context.”

This came to mind last week as I covered a community’s decision to drastically cut its recreation fees in the hopes of attracting more members. Among other goals, the mayor said he wants to entice 360 families, including 300 from the town, to sign up.

Left unsaid, however, was the current number of members. I figured it was at least 100, perhaps more than 200. But when I dug a little bit, I was surprised to learn that the figure was so small that AP style requires I spell it out: seven.

Membership had peaked at 18 four years ago, then steadily dwindled.

As sometimes happens, space for the story dwindled: The 700-word piece was cut to 170 words. Among the deleted information was the contrast between past membership and future goals.

When I came across the abridged account, I was disappointed. Sure, it’s never fun to see your story go from Shaquille O’Neal to Mini-Me. But I was mostly vexed by the loss of context.

At this point, I could have chosen to:

1. Angrily call my editor on the phone for removing the context.
2. Reflect on how I could have increased the likelihood that this key element would stick in the story.

I picked option two and came across some humbling truths.

First, I should have torn up my vague lead (“…officials are gambling that less will become more…”) with a specific attention-getter (“…officials are shooting for a 50-fold increase in membership…”).

Second, I realized that I buried this compelling statistic because I got it shortly before deadline.

Because I had already written nearly the entirely story before getting the year-to-year membership figures, I went on a search-and-insert mission. About 350 words into the story, I found a nice little neighborhood for the numbers to reside.

What do you do when you corral numbers late in the writing process? Do you punish them for being tardy and relegate them to afterthought treatment? Or do you take a step back, annul your marriage to that clever lead, and give an open-minded, thoughtful assessment of where the data truly belongs?

Jettison the Jargon

One of journalism’s occupational hazards is jargon contagion—we begin to speak like the folks we cover. Words and phrases like “economic enhancement” and “allocation of monies” creep into our writing.

We might catch the bureaucrat-speak on a second draft or, if we’re lucky, an alert editor inserts some common, plain-speaking sense into our story.

Here are some common pitfalls to beware when it comes to math- or numbers-related gibberish and double-speak:

I. “Monies”

This is the financial equivalent of saying you caught quite a few “fishes” along the pier. Note: about 10 years ago, in a weak moment, I proposed using “monies” in a story and an editor straightened me out.

II. “Savings”

A seemingly innocent word, “savings” is a marketing ploy—and one of the most insidious terms not only in journalism, but in all of society.

Consider a story that mentions a community is refinancing a $1.9 million debt. As a result, the village will “save” about $117,000 a year, the report states. But is it truly a matter of “saving” money?

Nope. Just as we don’t see a wire transfer of $2.45 when the cashier tells us we “saved” that sum at the grocery store, neither does the village get an infusion of $117,000 in the above scenario. It simply means the village will “spend less” money. More apt phrases, then, would be “reduced expenses” or “less spending.”

III. “Bond Issue”

This is a high-brow way of saying, “borrow money.” So when your councilman talks about a $25 million bond issue, be sure to tell readers that the town is borrowing money.

IV. “Expenditures”

“Spending” is not only two syllables shorter, but eminently clearer. And when’s the last time you went on an “expending spree”?

V. “Revenue enhancement”

Let’s just call it “higher taxes” or “fee increases” or whatever the case may be. But use “revenue enhancement” and that’s proof that you’re being little more than a recounter of what someone said instead of a reporter of what’s going on.

BARON BIT: When it comes to quantity, even worse than the fuzzy non-figure “several” is the mysterious “handful.” Are we talking Shaquille O’Neal’s hand or Mini-Me’s?

September 2003

Numbers in context: The Difference Between Fabulous & Feeble

By Matt Baron

With the college and professional football seasons getting under way, you will have to excuse this spin on a gridiron cliché: Telling stories effectively and powerfully is a context sport.

And perhaps more than any other element, numbers provide one of the easiest ways to spot the fabulous or feeble use of context.

The police department recently hired five new officers? There were 20 fender-benders on your town’s snowy roads yesterday? The city council is looking to cut $1.7 million from its budget?

Unless you note how many officers the department already has; unless you indicate a typical day’s fender-bender count; and unless you provide the overall budget tally, then you have painted a world that exists in a vacuum at best and, at worst, can veer into the distorted.

If you fail to put figures in a proper context, then it figures that your story will fail to properly communicate.

The issue comes to mind with some of the recent buzz around Barry Bonds, the most imposing batter in professional baseball.

Two years ago, he so intimidated pitchers that they avoided pitching to him at a record pace and he walked 177 times. Amazingly, he still slugged a record 73 home runs.

Last year, Bonds focused on a lofty batting average, and his .370 mark made him, at 38, the oldest player in history to win the batting title for the first time. At the same time, he slammed another 46 home runs and breezed past his record for walks with 198 bases on balls—an astounding figure when you consider that the next-most walked player had 135 and only 12 others had even half as many walks as Bonds.

Certainly, the San Francisco Giant outfielder posts huge numbers. But it doesn’t mean that he knows how to put those numbers in context. Earlier this summer, regarding his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, Bonds made this swing-and-miss comment:

“The only number I care about is Babe Ruth’s. Because as a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. That’s it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth’s everything, right? I got his slugging percentage and I’ll take his home runs and that’s it. Don’t talk about him no more.”

With all due respect to Bonds, we really ought to chat just a bit about Ruth. Stated another way, let’s put Ruth’s and Bond’s careers in context. In Ruth’s career, he hit a home run every 12 at bats. Depending on the season, his peers, on average, hit a home run every 100 at bats, meaning Ruth outpaced them eight- or 10-fold in a typical season.

In 1920, Ruth’s 54 home runs were more than all but one of the other 15 Major League teams. As impressive as he has been, Bonds has never been even half as dominant as Ruth. And he certainly has never outhomered an entire opposing team.

Bottom line: Ruth was posting huge numbers in an era when nobody came close to putting up similar numbers. Bonds is playing at a time when home runs are much more common. As of Sept. 1, despite needing fewer at bats between home runs than Ruth ever did, Bonds was still not even quadrupling the pace of his peers. Aside from small pockets of time at the start and end of his career, Ruth never slumped so badly as that.

It’s probably not fair to jump all over Bonds. Yes, his comments are the intellectual equivalent of a hanging curve ball, just ripe for knocking out of the park. But others, who really should know better, often slip under the radar with statements void of any context.

For instance, as I write this column, a national radio announcer declared that Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox, stepping to the plate to face a right-handed pitcher, had hit 18 of his 23 home runs this season against those throwing right.

It’s ominous sounding enough—hey, 78 percent of his homers are off right-handers! A little research, however, reveals that 75 percent of his at bats have come against righties. Hmm, maybe that explains why those are the ones who so often surrender homers to him? What’s more, the announcer failed to note that Garciaparra’s batting average against lefties, .381, was much better than his .304 mark against righthanders. Based on that stat, maybe he’d have been better off facing a southpaw.

(By the way, Garciaparra was walked intentionally, though not because the pitcher got wind of the announcer’s windy stat.)

While sports lend themselves to exhaustive contortions, rampant neglect and shameless abuse and misuse of numbers, the context conundrum courses through any story you may encounter in business, entertainment, politics and beyond.

As you face these would-be “con” jobs, just be sure to probe with questions that will add sorely needed “text.”

BARON BIT: To see why Bonds’ 73-homer season, adjusted for home run inflation, is not even in the all-time top 50, read:

August 2003

From me to you: Keep numbers in chronological order

By Matt Baron

In baseball, it’s called batting out of order. In stories, it appears to be a trend that’s getting out of hand.

I speak of the practice in which a writer introduces a current quantitative measure, and then compares it with a quantity relating to a similar past period of time.

To illustrate this point, writing coach Jim Stasiowski alerted me to a July 26 story on the front page of the Business section in The Washington Post. Headlined “The Amazing Disappearing Tax Revenue,” the article compared old budget deficits with upcoming budget deficits. In the third paragraph, the story reads: As of June 30, the first nine months of this fiscal year, individual income tax receipts have fallen to $605 billion, down $39 billion from the comparable period last year, the Treasury Department said Wednesday. Corporate income taxes slid to $98 billion from $116 billion. This is the literary equivalent of showing the “after” photograph in those weight-loss ads, and then revealing the “before” photograph. Doesn’t flow quite the same, does it?

As Stasiowski noted, time runs forward, so a comparison should first list the older statistic, then the newer. With that in mind, he suggested this rearrangement of the above sentences: As of June 30, the end of the first nine months of this fiscal year, individual tax receipts were down $39 billion from a year ago, to $605 billion, the Treasury Department said Wednesday. Corporate taxes slid from $116 billion to $98 billion.
He provided two primary reasons for the change:

First: “Because life progresses chronologically, readers are more comfortable with the “was-is” comparison than with the “is-was,” which requires readers to think backwards.”

Second: “All my training as a reporter-storyteller prods me to give the most revealing or significant information last in a sentence, i.e., to work toward a climax rather than to bury the climax in the middle of the sentence.”I couldn’t have said it any better, so thanks, Jim, for giving voice to the discomfort I had with the “was-is” structure. In the past few months, I had begun to succumb to this movement. Only last week, in a story about motor vehicle thefts, I wrote, “…the crime increased by 5 percent in Cicero, to 513 in 2002 from 488 the year before.”

It’s a good thing a newspaper reporter wasn’t in charge of naming the 1953 film starring Burt Lancaster. Otherwise, we’d be watching “To Eternity From Here.”

Common Sense Test

With resources at our fingertips—both in hardback and on the Internet—we need not become a repository of tons of information. However, we must exercise common sense in assessing the validity of a story.

Two years ago, I came across a story that examined the growing role of the Internet on wedding and funeral planning. The writer hung the story’s hat on some figures that simply do not jibe. Here is the text:

“…The significance of these two major industries finding their way into the world of electronic sales is staggering, when sheer numbers are considered.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2000, almost 9 percent of the U.S. population got married. In the same year, the National Funeral Directors Association reports 8.8 percent of the population died.

NFDA reports the average cost of a funeral in America is just under $6,000. As for weddings, the size and type of event planned determines cost. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on these events…”

Stop right there. Think about the people in your life. For every 100 people you know, do nine get married every year? And from that same group, do the same number die? How many are even in the typical range of marriage? How many are at death’s door?

It is apparent that the reporter had a decimal challenge—at first blush, the figures more likely were almost 0.9 percent of the population got married, and 0.88 percent died. Indeed, a look at The Statistical Abstract of the Untied States reveals that the death rate in 1997 was 864.7 per 100,000 population, or 1 in 116 persons. And there were 8.3 marriages per 1,000 population, which is about one in 120, in 1998, according to the Abstract.

Even if provided flawed figures, the reporter should have applied the common sense test to scrutinize their validity.

BARON BIT: Be sure to bookmark

July 2003

Don’t try to exact too much out of numbers

By Matt Baron

We live in a world that offers precision—or at least the illusion of it. Odometers tell us the distance we’ve driven, to the tenth of a mile. Digital watches tell us it’s 4:43, not “about a quarter to five.”

But what about the horseshoes-and-hand grenades approach? You know, those cases in which close enough is, well, close enough. This issue comes up with using numbers in stories. How precise do we need to be? How precise do we want to be?

These questions stem from a recent panel discussion of which I was a part. The topic was accuracy in reporting and a fellow journalist raised the issue of how far to go with reporting dollar figures. If a budget is, say, $92.3 million, then we should not round it off to $92 million, he said. In his view, doing so means we’ve failed to account for $300,000 and essentially allowed an inaccuracy to creep into our story.

I understood his point, but I thought he was overly concerned. I shared this analogy: If my wife went shopping and spent $92.30 (a figure we all can relate to, and is within my wife’s budget, I might add), I wouldn’t feel misled if she told me she spent $92. The proportional difference in both scenarios is the same—a little more than 0.3%.

Moreover, a budget is very rarely so exact as something like $92.3 million. It could be $92,289,448 or $92,336,850 or some other clumsy number. Taking my colleague’s decimal point to heart, why would we not call those examples $92.29 million or $92.34 million?

There are often two competing values—the value your audience derives from clear understanding, and a figure’s exact value. To find a proper balance, ask these questions:

*By rounding off this number, am I painting a distorted picture for my reader?

*How would I tell this story over the breakfast table to a friend?

*Is a number’s exact amount a crucial element to the story?

Any time you suspect you may be straying too far from the precise number, then insert the word “about” or “nearly” or another qualifier that signals the figure is in the ballpark, but not in the exact seat.

Here are some examples. They are not Go Figure gospel, and you may want to vary your approach, but always keep in mind that you are writing for your average reader, not an accounting firm.

Actual amount: $8,426.67
Consider writing: $8,400 or $8,427

Actual amount: $842,667
Consider writing: $843,000 or “nearly $850,000”

Actual amount: $8,426,669
Consider writing: $8.4 million

Actual amount: $84,266,690
Consider writing: $84 million

Finding a Reason to Rhyme

One of the benefits of sharing math principles in person is being able to see eyes glaze over immediately, then backtrack to make sure the point is clear. But this column does not lend itself to that immediacy of feedback.

To address that reality, I have written 16 rhyming ditties, in a collection called “When You Go Figure,” that can help you keep some mathematical points straight. Take, for example, the Rule of 72.

If you want to see roughly how many years it would take for an investment to double, take 72 and divide it by the annual percentage rate of growth. With an 8-percent annual return, you would double your money in nine years (72 divided by 8). A 12-percent annual return would double your money in six years, and so forth.

Stated another (rhyming) way:

Know the Rule of 72
And it’s no trouble
To see how many years
For a figure to double

Another ditty warns against a pitfall frequently planted by marketers and advocacy groups:

“Fastest-growing” this
“Biggest-dropping” that
Always be wary
Of any hyphenated stat

And then there’s this one, which relates to this month’s topic:

What should you do
With an overly specific stat
It’s time to declare,
“Rounding off is where it’s at!”

If you are interested in the entire “When You Go Figure” set, drop me an e-mail. You can be sure that I will send it, without fail.

BARON BIT: It’s about time you considered nixing “approximately” from your writing. Why use a 13-letter word when “about” says the same thing?