Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The "'Numbers Guy' would like fewer numbers

Thanks to Nicole Stockdale for pointing to this CJR Daily interview with Carl Bialik, "The Numbers Guy" from the Wall Street Journal's online edition (which, to its credit, does not put the weekly column behind the paid firewall).

Among other things, Bialik thinks sports and business reporters handle numbers pretty well. But when it comes to feature reporters:
... that sort of consumer news, can be more manipulated, because [reporters] are often dealing with PR firms, trying to establish trends for things that are very hard to measure. And the numbers really aren't core to the process. So there may be only one number out there, and it's often coming from an advocacy group. And it's become kind of a standard part of the structure of feature stories to get some numerical evidence somewhere near the top, and then move on. So the writer doesn't want to dwell too long on where the numbers came from, but does want to have some numbers in there to point to if somebody questions that this is really a trend, if this is really a story. So that is a situation that makes number problems more likely.
He also says: "But in a lot of cases, the numbers being thrown around don't take any real advanced training to look into; it's just a matter of reading the source documents." Which makes me wonder how many copy editors fail to challenge such numbers. Almost every number in a story should be checked against common sense and politely challenged.

Bialik says it may seem odd, but he'd like to see fewer numbers -- but used more correctly.
It just seems like there are more numbers being reported than there are good numbers. And if you write a trend story, and you are honest with readers and don't cite any numbers because no credible numbers exist, then readers have a better chance to decide on their own if this makes sense to them. Sometimes you need to make a qualitative argument, because there aren't any valid quantitative arguments to be made.


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