Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Go Figure Goes To Medill

A few days ago, I had the good fortune of speaking at my alma mater for the third time since last autumn.

At the invitation of Ceci Rodgers, adjunct professor of economics and business reporting, I spoke to a "Journalism By the Numbers" class for grad students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Adapted from my seven-year-old workshop, Go Figure: Making Numbers Count, the point that I drive home more than any other is the importance of using numbers in context.

All too often, the stories we tell are loaded with stats in a vacuum--leaving the reader to guess as to their significance. Instead, as story-tellers, whether journalist, publicist or any other role, we need to take the time to truly understand the relevance of a given number and then communicate it clearly to our audience.

For more Go Figure tips, go to this page on the Inside Edge PR website and click on Journalism Tips & Training Columns.

What about you--what irks you most about how the media uses (and misuses) numbers?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Can You Top This? A Checklist On Handling Lists

Of the many traits that set humans apart from other species, here's one you may not yet have pondered: we're the only ones who make lists.

Increasingly, it seems, we have a love affair with tidy numerical lists. David Letterman has his Top 10 List for each of his programs. In fact, one time he had a Top 10 list of the numbers 1 through 10. (For those of you wondering, the #1 number was two).

Look at any magazine stand and you’ll see this phenomenon in its compulsive splendor: “Six techniques for mooching food samples at grocery stores….Five tips for procrastinating by checking old e-mails!…Ten reasons why chocolate is better than vegetables….”

Wait, how did my personal issues creep in here? Anyway, in the spirit of the topic, here is Go Figure’s Top 5 List of Factors to Consider in Using Lists. To borrow from the Letterman technique, we will count down from five to provide you with a mounting sense of suspense:

5. Can it be told more effectively in another manner?

Sometimes, there are not enough elements to lend sufficient weight to a list. There is no magic number where the line is drawn on this one, but I’d suggest that four or fewer items could come across as especially awkward and gratuitous in a list form. A more logical approach may be to simply list the items in the body of a story.

4. Is the list too long?

Government budget stories are prime opportunities to break out numbers in an information box. But avoid turning the box into a condominium—include only the most significant numbers that account for the bulk of the budget.

Listing everything, including the kitchen sink, may muddy the waters so much that it blurs the big picture you are seeking to report. You can bunch all the lesser items into a one-liner that states “other.”

3. Should you include the data that sparked the list in the first place?

Without accompanying numbers, an incomplete and potentially misleading portrait can emerge in some cases. Consider the most populated countries in the world (in order): China, India, United States, Indonesia, and Brazil.

What the list does not show is that there is a huge drop-off between the top two countries (1.3 billion and 1.1 billion, respectively) and the rest (the U.S. is just over 300 million while Indonesia and Brazil, combined, are closing in on 420 million).

In fact, more people dwell in China and India than the next 20 most populated countries combined. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is important to note how close some items are to one another. In that way, you don’t leave the false impression that there is a huge gap between #1 and #5 or however long the list goes.

2. If it is touted as a survey, is it truly is a scientific sampling?

Sometimes, anecdotal information or even commercially tainted pieces of puffery try to masquerade as surveys. Among other things, you’ll want to know who sponsored (read: paid for) the survey and a respected survey research firm conducted it.

For more background, see a prior “Go Figure” column, The Ten Commandments of Survey Reporting, at as well as a handy booklet produced by the National Council on Public Polls, “Twenty Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results.”

The questions, along with other insightful commentary, are listed online at and the NCPP can be reached at 800-239-0909. And, finally, the number one Factor to Consider in Using Lists…

1. Are the numbers even accurate?

This might seem obvious. But so are mistakes when they are made in such a highly visible layout. If you’re going to take steps to attract folks’ attention, then be sure that the information is correct in the first place. And the second place, and the third place…

BARON BIT: Be leery of so-called polls that provide respondents with a limited number of choices on open-ended questions. If people must choose from a pre-determined list of five vice-presidential favorites, for example, then it can give a skewed picture that “40 percent of fans think Mitt Romney will be on the Republication ticket with John McCain.” In fact, 40 percent chose Mitt from among the five candidates provided.

This column is adapted from a Go Figure column originally written in 2004.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Increase Your Appeal To Readers—Have Fun With Numbers

By Matt Baron

I like having fun. And so, I believe, do newspaper readers who all too often are saturated with hyper-negativity, from murder and mayhem to petty celebrity gossip.

So it was refreshing this week to see the extra effort that the Chicago Tribune devoted to a story on the Chicago Bulls winning the rights to the first pick in the NBA draft on June 26.

Typically, a truly pathetic team wins the so-called “draft lottery”—since the league has a formula that gives the teams with the worst records a greater shot at the coveted top spot.

Though the Bulls’ 2007-2008 season was a disappointment, they were nowhere close to being the worst squad. Therefore they had a mere 1.7 percent chance of winning the No. 1 selection.

Rather than simply state the figure as some clinical, statistical fact, the Tribune ventured another step and offered an information box with the headline “What are the odds?”

In the brief text below, the paper posed this question, “How does that stack up with some other life experiences?”

From being dealt blackjack (1 in 21) to winning the Powerball grand prize (1 in 146,107,962), the paper offered 10 scenarios. My favorite: bag being lost, delayed or pilfered at airport (1 in 132)—a timely stat in light of airlines’ new policy of charging people to check those (at-risk) bags!

There are many stories that lend themselves to this kind of treatment, if only you activate your imagination for a few minutes. Just recently, a publicist asked me to crunch some figures related to the increase in hybrid vehicles registered in his home state.

What I found is that hybrid vehicles still represented only a tiny fraction (less than one-half of one percent) of all registered vehicles. It had crept up from 0.29 percent to 0.41 percent.

But a closer look revealed a more eye-popping stat: with 7,000 of the roughly 16,000 additional vehicle registrations overall, hybrids were responsible for nearly half of the rise in registered vehicles during the last year.

As long as those numbers are kept within the overall context of the state’s approximately 5.7 million registered vehicles, that’s a rather compelling way to show hybrid vehicles’ rising popularity.

For more discussion about tapping into your imagination with numbers, see:

BARON BIT: To increase the likelihood of your newspaper having fun with numbers, think thematically about how you illustrate the figures. A story on an increase in property taxes, for example, could show five houses of varying sizes (based on the tax rate) alongside one another, with each one representing a different year.