Monday, September 03, 2012

Numeracy-challenged editing

It's Labor Day, and the livin' is easy. But that doesn't mean the editing is easy or should be any less vigorous.

So I present two exhibits from my morning paper that should have raised flags. The first is in a story about the challenges of keeping South Carolina's college graduates in the state, and specifically in the Midlands (Columbia area):

   The study shows that Charleston – thought to be desirable to young professionals with its beaches, culture, architecture and history – ranks 30th in the nation with a college-educated workforce of 31.9 percent. Greenville, perhaps surprisingly, is in a tie for 68th in the country, with 26.9 percent of its workforce holding college degrees.

   And the most recent jobs report from the S.C Department of Employment and Workforce shows that Columbia over the past year is leading the state in job creation, many in professional services. Of the 11,300 jobs created in the past year, 9,500 are in the Midlands, while Spartanburg created 6,400 jobs and Charleston grew by 4,500. By contrast, Greenville and Myrtle Beach shed more than 3,000 jobs each.

I've yet to figure out how those numbers add up to 11,300, even being liberal and subtracting 7,000 jobs (3,500 each for Greenville and Myrtle Beach). I'm guessing that the difference is in the rest of the state somehow. But why confuse readers? Perhaps it's best to just leave out the 11,300 figure and just write, "Of the jobs created in South Carolina in the past year, 9,500 are ..."

Then there is this from a story about paving dirt roads in Lexington County*:
  Lexington County Council is struggling to settle the fate of dirt roads where some landowners along the routes refuse to turn over slivers required to improve the country lanes.

  Some council members want to shelve the projects, while others want to relay that threat anew to the holdouts, in hopes they’ll have a change of heart.

  The fuss could lead to changes in the way county officials settle annually on paving a few miles each year of more than 600 miles of dirt roads.**
OK, until you come to these grafs late in the story:
   The list of roads earmarked for paving is developed through a checklist based on factors such as number of residents affected, traffic counts, proximity to schools and length of time a request has been pending.

  More than 300 requests are pending to pave about half of the county’s more than 700 miles of dirt roads.
So which is it, 600 or 700?

Numbers need three things:
  • Relevance (they must be the right numbers - I'm amazed at the number of stories I get or read where someone is writing about a local situation and starts with a national or regional number; also, if you are talking about a rate, don't give me just the absolute number.).
  • Completeness (it's not a "penny" tax increase, for instance, it's a "penny-on-the-dollar" increase).
  • Context (the number has to be properly surrounded by any qualifiers or explainers to make it understandable - somewhat related to the rate vs. absolute number problem)
For all I know, the numbers in both these stories could be rock solid. But here's the thing, rock solid doesn't do any good if they confuse readers. Research has shown that too many journalists think just throwing a number in adds credibility.

But throwing in the wrong number or doing it carelessly can leave readers confused, and that's a credibility (if not, eventually, a circulation) buster.

*For those of you playing along at home, the headline on that roads story is Residents block dirt road paving by refusing to give right-of-ways. AP style is rights of way - no hyphens and "rights" as plural. (The dictionary shows either plural form but lists first the "rights" one.) And while I don't think there's lots of confusion without a hyphen in "dirt road," just flip it for greater clarity: Residents block paving dirt roads by refusing to give rights of way

** Duly noted the sentence also is needlessly redundant: "Each year" and "annually" say the same thing, so drop one.

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