Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Take a number — and put it in context

By · Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Election ads. Full of increases, decreases, numbers and percentages. Whether you are consuming news about the upcoming elections or you are engaged in campaign coverage, here are some quick tips about putting numbers into context that might help. These tips are intended to empower you to publish clear stories that are void of vague details, which will lead others to make smart choices.

Always look for the number behind the numbers. What does that mean?

EXAMPLE 1: Consider percentages. It’s one thing to tell readers that 10 percent of the high school population is out with the flu. But what does that 10 percent represent? Is it 50 students out of a school of 500? Or is it three students out of a classroom of 30? There’s a big difference, and the answer probably would make a difference in how the story is reported.

EXAMPLE 2: Research can help to put numbers in context. If the mayor’s $90,000 salary is about to increase by $30,000, and it’s the first such increase in 15 years, think about how numbers can enhance the reporting and put the news into context. Yes, that’s a 33 percent increase. But what about the cost-of-living trend and the average salary increase for workers over the past decade and a half? When that information is researched and applied to $90,000, you might find the mayor’s raise, which city residents have complained is “huge,” still might leave the mayor behind most everyone else.

EXAMPLE 3: If police suggest that violent crime in a neighborhood has decreased by 25 percent because of great crime-fighting, make sure the story includes the appropriate context. It probably would not be much of a story if crime fell from 20 incidents to 15; any number of factors, not necessarily good policing, might explain that decrease. But if incidents are down from 200 to 150, then those numbers are more significant and would make a good story.

These tips are taken from our “Think Like an Editor” book. If you want to read more, refer to Strategy 16: Context.

Two more tips:

1. Polls and surveys. References to these should include pertinent information, such as what kind of poll, who conducted it and who paid for it.

2. Percents and percentage points. These are not the same. The difference between 2 percent and 5 percent is expressed in percentage points. The difference is 3 percentage points (not 3 percent).

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

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