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.

No comments: