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Numbers in the newsroom: Tips from Sarah Cohen

March 16, 2012

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Sarah Cohen


What do you think of when you see that number? A nickel? Five fingers?

How about 5-to-4? What comes to mind?

A Supreme Court decision? A baseball score?

What if the number is bigger, say 313? Can you picture that?

How about 313 million, the current population of the United States? How easy is that to visualize?

That’s how Duke University Knight Professor Sarah Cohen made the point that when numbers get very large – or very small — they get harder to picture and understand.

In those situations, one way to help your audience understand numbers is to provide an anchor. Speaking at a session today sponsored by the Reynolds Center at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Conference in Indianapolis, she outlined these possible anchors to give meaning to numbers:

  • A standard or goal – Ask yourself, “What would good look like?” For example, what would good GDP growth look like?
  • Historical numbers— Is there a golden period to which current numbers can be compared? Perhaps in the economy that might be the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • Portion of whole – For example, at the time of the Million Man March in 1995, a turnout of 1 million black men would have represented 1/12th of all the black men in the country at the time.
  • Other places – How do other similar towns or companies compare?

Other tips on numbers in the news from Cohen, who was an economist before becoming a Pulitzer-winning journalist at The Washington Post, included:

  • To make a very small number more understandable, divide it into 1. For example, .0081 is the proportion of the U.S. population who die every year. 1/.0081 translates to 1 in every 124 Americans die each year.
  • If you have a story filled with numbers – and not people — it needs to be really, really short.
  •  Unless you’re dealing with really small numbers, decimal points may not be meaningful. “I’m a big fan of rounding,” Cohen said.
  • Limit yourself to no more than 12 digits, including dates such as 2012, in a single paragraph.

More resources to make numbers meaningful in your stories:


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