Friday, June 17, 2005

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).

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