Published on March 6, 2014
Do the Math: A Basic guide for using numbers in stories Adopted from former IRE training Director David Donald with additions by Ron Nixon
The Truth About Numbers! • Figures don’t lie, but liars figure—Mark Twain.
Innumeracy • • • • No math required by my j-school. Math ignorance as badge of honor. We’ve got our nerd. My source will give me the numbers we need. • Numbers are hard, solid, cold facts.
Numeracy • Numbers are a summary of the real world. • Many numbers often are a guess. • Many numbers often are an opinion.
“Building a Sense of Scale” • Population of City, County, State and Country • Average Household Income • Size of the U.S. Economy • City, County and State Budget
Numbers v. words • No more than two or three numbers in a paragraph. • No more than one, maybe two, paragraphs in a row with numbers. • Dates, time, spelled-out numbers count. • Memorize common numbers on your beat. Think is this number up or down, big or small.
Numbers v. words • Round off – and then maybe round off some more. • Learn to convert to simple ratios to keep your numbers small. • Always double-check your math answers. No, better triple-check.
Use Devices from Everyday Life • “About the size of a football field” • “The equivalent of pouring a teaspoon of water in a lake.” • “Three times as high as …….”
Numbers v. words • The editor’s question – Does this number make sense? • So … When all the above fails, numbers belong in graphics – bar charts, tables and – at last resort – a bulleted break-out box.
Graphics • Take your graphic artist or graphic reporter to lunch. • Do your calculations and bar charts in Excel, then export to Adobe Illustrator or Freehand. • Learn some principles of good graphics to have quality conversations with your graphic folks.
Resources • Google “misleading graphs” http://www.google.com • Get, read, study, live with Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/
More Resources • Damned Lies and Statistics—Joel Best • A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper— John Allen Paulos • 200% Of Nothing A.K. Dewdney • Inumeracy—John Allen Paulos • Math Tools for Journalist—Kathleen Woodruff Wickham • How to Lie With Statistics—Darrell Huff
Finally … • Essential: Sarah Cohen’s Numbers in the Newsroom http://www.ire.org/store/books/math.html
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