Friday, June 17, 2005

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.

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