Friday, June 17, 2005

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

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