Monday, June 15, 2009

Numbers in a story


During a training session in Baltimore last week, I got the chance to sit in on a few classes with Sarah Cohen, of the Washington Post.

She was fantastic. A key point: It's not cute when reporters say they "don't do" numbers, she said. It would be like saying you "don't do" telephone interviews or e-mail. Reading and understanding numbers is part of a reporter's job, she said.

I will share with you some writing tips she shared on writing with numbers. I bought a book she wrote on the topic. If you are interested in taking a look, please stop by my desk.

Anyway, here's a tip from Cohen:
  • We need to understand the numbers we are using in stories. That means being able to picture them.
Here's an exercise she took us through to help you understand what she means.
Try to picture this: 0.0081
It's the proportion of people who die each year. But that number is hard to picture. Let's make it something useful to readers.
"One out of 120 people die each year."

During her talk, Cohen also stressed the importance of graphics in telling stories with numbers. That's something we've been talking about doing more of at the Daily Record. If you are interested, here's a PDF of my notes from Cohen's training session.