Don’t forget the story behind the statistics

by | Jan 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/January 2009

Police were called to a house where a teen-ager refused to leave after the owners were served eviction papers for being arrears on mortgage payments. The youth was removed without incident.

The last sentence of the story may have been the most noteworthy, however. Police served papers on 35 houses that day.

This news item from a few years ago could well be commonplace today as the economy takes its toll on thousands of homeowners. The scenario also provides an excellent reminder that editors and reporters should be diligent in looking for the story behind the statistics.

In simplest terms, newsrooms have ample opportunities to put local faces behind the numbers. Consider the statistics – those that are routinely generated as well as those that cross editors’ desks during these uncertain economic times. For example:

Delinquent taxes – An auditor’s office reported a trickle of payments in contrast to the normal flood of checks following publication of delinquent taxes. Are people waiting for the second publication of notices due to tight finances? Compare the delinquency rate to previous years once all taxes are collected.

Foreclosure notices – A variety of angles can be pursued, beginning with a comparison of the numbers from a year ago. Identify the available financial counseling services. What avenues do financial institutions take to avoid foreclosing on property? Do renters have legal recourse if their landlords go bankrupt? Search for success stories; are individuals willing to share how they worked through debt to regain financial stability?

Unemployment statistics – Analyze the raw unemployment figures. Is there a significant difference between the public sector and private sector? Review the performance of other categories – for example, manufacturing, retail, hospitality and agricultural jobs. Do local figures correlate with regional, statewide and national patterns?

Building activity – Building permits offer another pulse of economic activity by analyzing the number and value of residential and commercial/industrial permits, new construction vs. remodeling projects. Stories can be expanded by visiting with real estate agents and financial lenders. Do a sidebar on the vacancy rate of commercial buildings or the number of homes on the market.

Assistance programs – Tough economic times and higher energy prices inevitably result in more utility shutoffs and increased numbers of residents seeking assistance to pay heating bills. Similar stories can be pursued in the number of welfare caseloads, applications for unemployment pay or activity at food shelves.

This list is but a start of potential stories. Convene a brainstorming session, and editors and reporters can likely produce another dozen economic barometers.

Taken in aggregate, an economic downturn with the resulting budget shortfalls and budget cuts in the public and private sectors eventually becomes more than numbers. Statistics translate into lost jobs, shortened hours at city halls, delayed court calendars.

All of these stories present an opportunity to compare and contrast statistics, but a recitation of numbers without interpretation offers little substance for readers. In similar vein, interpretation will prove more meaningful for readers by attaching faces to numbers.

What are the stories of evicted homeowners? What are the emotions of a police officer who spends his day delivering these ultimatums? How are unemployed workers and their families coping with the realization that they now must make regular trips to the food shelf?

Editors and reporters cannot underestimate the difficulty of approaching the individuals affected by these circumstances. At the same time, explaining the whys and hows behind statistics is news. These stories are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and to represent themselves as the source of local information.