Put large numbers in context

By · Friday, August 27th, 2010

We have brought up this topic before — how context and background can greatly benefit the telling of a story. Writers and editors learn to keep this top of mind when gathering, writing and editing content.

A story in today’s New York Times about the devastating effects of the flooding in Pakistan is a good example. In the story, writer Carlotta Gall includes five paragraphs that connect today’s events to the past, while explaining large numbers in context of manageable and understandable ones. By doing this, she also “shows, not tells.” And, the writer includes ample attribution and a link.

From the NYT story:

Nearly 20 million people have been significantly affected, about the population of New York State, the United Nations said. The number in urgent need is now about eight million and expected to rise. More than half of them are without shelter.

The government’s estimates of the damage are equally grim. More than 5,000 miles of roads and railways have been washed away, along with some 7,000 schools and more than 400 health facilities.

Just to build about 500 miles of road in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the United States spent $500 million and several years, according to the Web site of the United States Agency for International Development.

And the agency has spent $200 million to rebuild just 56 schools, 19 health facilities and other services since the momentous earthquake in the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir in 2005.

One estimate, in a joint study from Ball State University and the University of Tennessee, put the total cost of the flood damage at $7.1 billion. That is nearly a fifth of Pakistan’s budget, and it exceeds the total cost of last year’s five-year aid package to Pakistan passed by Congress.

When editors are reading stories on their way to publication, they naturally look for this kind of context. When it’s not there, they attempt to get it. Deadline constraints sometimes make it impossible to include such information.

But when context is discussed early in the planning stages of a story, there will be no scrambling for this important element on deadline.

Think about stories that have large numbers, that have rich history, that have happened before elsewhere, that are technical, that describe elaborate processes — all of these are good candidates for explanations in the form of context and background. Do any come to mind? We would love for you to share your examples with us and with readers of our blog.

(For more, see Strategy 16: Context: How to Provide Background and Relevance, in our book, “Think Like an Editor: 50 Strategies for the Print and Digital World.)

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