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:
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.
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.
“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?