Numbers are funny things – especially for journalists.
They sound so definite and authoritative. Numbers represent facts in a seemingly indisputable way. They are easy to use and easy to understand.
That’s probably why journalists love using them in their reporting. When we can put a number on something, we feel like we know it and that whoever produced the number has given us some kernel of truth.
But the charm of numbers should be resisted. The numbers that a reporter chooses to report should be examined with all the skepticism that any other information merits.
First, numbers should always be placed in some context. To say that the president has a 52 percent job approval rating is to say – what? Is 52 percent a little or a lot? Context and comparison are important to a full understanding of what a number really means.
Second, and just as important, is the source of the number. Where does it come from? Who put the number on the thing that we are reporting?
One journalist who regularly examines the source and context of numbers is Carl Bailik, a Wall Street Journal reporter who writes a column called The Numbers Guy. This column is one of the free features of the Wall Street Journal web site, and those interested in good reporting should check it regularly.
Bailik’s column doesn’t just debunk some of the numbers that journalists and their sources use. He examines them carefully and sometimes finds that they are based on valid research or assumptions. For instance, a recent column looked at the often cited statistic that between 70 and 80 percent of the purchasers of rap music are white. This statistic is used a great deal within the music industry but rarely is its source reported.
Bailik tracks this number through several stops before he finds a credible source, although he does raise questions about how race is defined (who is black, who is white, etc.)
The columnist often uses readers as the source of questions about the numbers that journalists use. So if you doubt a number that you are hearing or reading, you might send him an email.
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Note to instructors: It might be a good exercise to have your students read several of Bailik’s columns and then have them do their own research on a set of numbers that they have encountered. The numbers they research may be correct (as Bailik sometimes finds), but questions about how they are produced should be examined.
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(My introduction to The Numbers Guy comes from Sree Sreenivasan’ Web Tips column from Poynter.org.)
Jim Stovall (Posted May 25, 2005)
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