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What I am losing sleep over: #1 Numbers

After last week's series on things I'm losing sleep over, I thought it's only fair to tell you what is keeping me up at night.

Unfortunately, it's far harder to narrow this list down to just five so I'm launching a 200-part blog series today. Just kidding. I'll keep it to five :)

 

No. 1: Numbers, numerals ... any digits

 

 

Math in copy makes me nervous. And it's not because I'm afraid of it. I lose sleep over it because it's so easy to mess up. And the numbers matter a lot to readers.

 

I have nightmares over rates and ratios. I stare at the ceiling and count percentage v. percentage points. I get night sweats over stories that say taxes are increasing but rates are going down. And don't even get me started on surveys, statistics and margins of error ...

 

We don't guard enough against our own ignorance and insecurities when it comes to numbers. As a result, we often just repeat what's handed us. And sometimes those numbers are confusing to readers; other times they are just flat-out wrong.

 

Instead of shying away, we need to dig deeper when we see them.

 

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark referred to a lack of numeracy as the "dark hole of journalism competence"  in an article today on the pyramid of journalism competence. We agree that this doesn't need to be the case.

 

Sources are going to spin numbers to their advantage. We need to understand what they are telling us and interpret them for readers by putting them in context.

 

In addition, we need to understand what numbers they aren't sharing with us -- and go get them.

 

We often see statements like this in copy:

 

Reporters are twice as likely to make a math error than copy editors.

 

If you questioned me, you might discover that I did a content analysis of one story. I found one reporter made one math error and the copy editor made none. Would it be helpful to know that the reporter put 200 numbers in the story and the copy editor none?

 

This is an overly simplistic example, but you get my point: The numbers mean nothing without context. And, in order to give them context, we need to understand and question them.

 

Hence, math gives me night terrors.

 

This is an area we can't afford to flub up. Our readers are counting on us.

 

Up next: Privacy and fairness

 

 

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