Numbers, without interpretation, leave readers in dark

by | May 1, 2012 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/May 2012

Spend any time in a newsroom and numbers readily become a fact of everyday reporting. Reporters’ eyes can easily become glazed by the stream of statistics.

A city council raises sewer rates – 7 percent for homes, 12 percent for commercial properties. A school board recommends passage of a school building referendum on the premise of nominal increases in property taxes, only $150 a year on a home valued at $250,000.  A sheriff ‘s yearend report presents a mixed picture of public safety – a 10-percent decrease in burglaries and break-ins vs. a 15-percent jump in serious crimes. The examples are numerous.

Yet, unfortunately, too many newsrooms simply present the numbers with little or no effort to provide context. It’s a sure bet that if the numbers are a blur for reporters, they’ll have minimal meaning for readers, too.

For starters, numerical increases and decreases – in budget stories, for example – are best interpreted using a combination of numbers and percentages. Beyond that, however, reporters should look for opportunities to cite practical examples. In other words, put a face behind the numbers. Doing so will make stories more interesting and substantive:

Here’s one list of ideas for everyday statistics that cross editors’ desks:

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. How do local figures correlate with regional, statewide and national patterns? Select a company or individual to profile as an example of one of the more noteworthy statistics.

Building activity: Analyze 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.

Public safety reports: Annual reports filed by law enforcement departments contain ample fodder for a variety of stories. Chart the sites of serious injury/fatal accidents, and produce a map and story; it may well be a springboard for an editorial calling for the installation of traffic signals at specific intersections. Are certain neighborhoods susceptible to burglaries? Why? Interview the victims, and possibly suggest the creation of a neighborhood watch program.

Athlete profiles: For every sport, there are a dozen statistics. Periodically review the numbers, and select an athlete to represent an aspect of a team’s performance.

Election by the numbers: Have some fun with election by considering a variety of approaches to “campaigns by the numbers.” How many miles did candidates walk or put on their cars? How many pancake breakfasts did they attend? How much weight did they gain or lose? How many signs did they post? How many speeches did they deliver? How much of their personal money and vacation days did they expend? How many volunteers helped, and, of those, how many were relatives? These stories can be done fairly easily with a little planning by posing the story to candidates as early as possible. Then give them a list of items they can track in a diary.

This list is but a start to exploring a variety of stories and sidebars. Convene a brainstorming session to examine all areas of coverage, and the ideas will flow. The range and scope of stories will keep your reporters busy, and, most important, you’ll be providing readers a service.