Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Communicating with Numbers #3

Use Numbers to Enhance not Disguise the Facts

A lot of people are intimidated by numbers. As writers, we know we need to include data/statistics in our material, but we’re not really comfortable with them so they’re added hastily without a great deal of thought or understanding. We add a colourful chart because it will brighten up the page, or we stick in a few statistics.

Premium on Numbers
In Hungry for Numbers, Allergic to Data, Steven DeMaio says, “In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy.”

DeMaio claims there are sins of omission when writers don’t verify the data (if you interview 25 people, it’s impossible to have 94% give a particular response) and sins of ignorance (“65% of workers are not properly trained” – fine, but how do you define “properly trained”).

Spin Doctors
2845 Ways to Spin the Risk is an animation showing how risks can be ‘spun’ to look bigger or smaller, how medical treatments can be made to seem useless or to be wonder cures, and how lifestyle changes might look worthwhile or not worth bothering with. All by changing the words used, the way the numbers are expressed, and the particular graphics chosen.

As writers, we have the power to present information completely and accurately – or to fudge the facts and disguise the truth. Let’s not let laziness or our discomfort with numbers lead us astray.

See Also: Dynamic Tables and Graphs

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