SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020

Word Count

By Billy O'Keefe

You can count on it: Numbers are critical to reporting. For his Friday session, “Turn Numbers into Words,” Bloomberg News training editor Jerry Hart offered this formula for dealing with digits:
• Don’t use the number without context because it is an anecdote for more, less, etc. “The number is not the story.”
• Don’t equate numbers with news. Numbers are data, which indicate up, down or no change. They are only data until the numbers are organized, and the reporter discovers why the data are the way they are.
• Compare numbers with something else, such as the year before, other cities, the biggest, the first, etc.
• Find the key number, which might be buried in the press release or budget. When it’s available, get the raw information to avoid spin.
• Calculate the percent of change because it’s often more meaningful than a number itself. It can identify the key number and eliminate others.
• Don’t say 100 percent, 200 percent, etc. Instead, use double, triple, etc.
• The terms mean and average are the same. Calculate by adding all the numbers in a list and dividing that sum by the number of numbers.
• Median is the middle value in a group of numbers. Half the group is smaller than the median and half the group is larger than the median.

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