Newsroom math

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					     Newsroom math

 A few words about numbers and
the problems they pose for editors
                        Newsroom math

There are all kinds of stories out there that
require numbers. There are stories about
test scores, surveys, political polls, census
stories, demographics stories, nearly all
sports stories. So now you have another
problem – not only do you have to worry
about the words, you have to make sure
the numbers are right, too.

Numbers stories are kind of like the 3,000-
meter steeplechase – you not only have to
run nearly 2 miles but you have to
overcome hurdles and a water pit as
                 A little math test …
• How many times would you like to go out and have a
  good time each week? Write down that number. (For me,
  that would be 2. That’s all I can afford.)

• Multiply the number above by 2 (4)

• Now add 5 (9)

• Multiply that number by 50 (450)

• If you have already had your birthday this year, add
  1,759. If not, then add 1,758 (This is good for 2009 only;
  add 1 to those numbers if it’s 2010, etc.) (2,207)

• From this, subtract the year (1955) you were born in.
    A little math test … the answer please

• You should end up with a three-digit number. (For me,

• The last two digits should equal your current age. (Yes
  … sigh)

• The first digit should equal your answer in the first step –
  the number of times you want to go out and have a good

If you didn’t come up with that, it’s time to take your math
skills in for a check-up.
       Numbers: A style guide (handout)
• Mr. AP’s general rule is to spell out numbers from zero
  through nine and use numerals for numbers 10 and
  above. If it has two digits or more, make it a number!

• Some notable exceptions are millions, percentages,
  ages, years, headlines – always use numbers. But note
  that a headline that says “Fire consumes 3 5-story
  buildings” could be misread in some fonts as a row of
  35-story buildings being destroyed.

• There are references to numbers throughout the AP
  stylebook, but many of them are under the dimensions

• Note that you spell out “percent” in stories but can use
  the percent sign in headlines.
                     Budgets and math

Editing stories about government agencies will undoubtedly require that
you learn something about budgets. Nearly all governmental entities
have budgets – that contain your money – and those budgets rarely
stay the same. So you might have to do some math, particularly with

Budgets (Stanton handout)
• Budgets are an estimate of money coming in and going out -- is
  there a deficit?
• Comparison needed to previous budget or budgets and to actual
• Fiscal years vs. calendar years
• Where is budget shrinking or growing? A clue to political philosophy
• With tax rates, give an example.
       Some common math in journalism

• Average: add up the numbers in a series and divide by
  the sum of the numbers in the series. Example: 67 74
  89 90 100 = 420. Divided by 5 gives an average of 84.

• Median: the middle number in a series that is arranged
  in ascending order. From the previous example, the
  median is 89. But in this series -- 67 74 83 89 90 100
  -- the median is 86 (the midpoint between the middle two
  numbers, 83 and 89).

• Mean: the dividend between the highest and lowest
  numbers in a series or group. Using the first example:
  67 + 100 = 167. Divided by 2 = 83.5.
                  Now you do it …
 A basketball player scores 22, 15, 18, 13, 12 and 25
  points over six games. What is his average in those six

 What is the median score?
 What is the mean?
              The answers are …

 Average is 17.5  (12 + 13 +15 + 18 + 22 + 25 =
  105; divided by 6)

 Median is 16.5    (12, 13, 15, 18, 22, 25; 15 + 18
  divided by 2)

 Mean is 18.5    (12 + 25 = 37, divided by 2)
      Some common math in journalism
• Percentages: The part divided by the whole x 100. Say
  you have a city with 200,000 residents and 10,000 are
  jobless. What is the percentage of jobless folks?

  10,000 divided by 200,000 = .05 x 100 = 5 percent.

• Percentage increase/decrease: Take the NEW number
  and subtract the OLD number, divide that result by the
  OLD number and multiply by 100. Using the previous
  example, let’s say the jobless figure grows to 15,000.
  The percentage of jobless becomes 7.5 percent. What
  is the percentage increase?

  15,000 (new number) minus 10,000 (old) = 5,000.
  Divided by 10,000 (old) = .50 x 100 = a 50 percent
        Newsroom math: Danger areas

• Percent and percentage points: In the previous
  example, note that the difference between 5 percent and
  7.5 percent is 2.5 percentage points -- not 2.5 percent.
  That 50 percent increase translates to 5,000 human
  beings. This is where spin can come in: When talking
  about their record, which figure would a mayoral
  incumbent prefer to be used to describe the jobless
  numbers -- 50 percent, 5,000 or 2.5 percentage points?

  Also, be aware that a 200 percent increase is not the
  same as “double.” It’s a 100 percent increase that is
  actually the figure that is twice the size of the previous
  number. A 200 percent increase is triple the original.
         Newsroom math: Danger areas

• Spin or misleading numbers: Be aware that numbers
  can lie. (GET HANDOUT) There’s an old saying out
  there: There are lies, damn lies and statistics. That’s why
  in baseball they often say “tell your statistics to shut up.”
• Ages: Ages are a prime part of the identifier equation in
  news stories. Check against whatever database or
  archive you have. is a good one. Note
  that people in Hollywood lie about their ages all the time.
  Age discrepancies often appear in obits; check the age
  against the date of birth.
• Box scores: Make sure the numbers add up, whether
  it’s the stats on the player or the final score. Make sure
  the numbers in the story and box score match.
         Newsroom math: Danger areas

• Informational graphics: make sure the percentages
  add up to 100, or say why they do not (rounding). Make
  sure the numbers in the graphic match the story.

• Phone numbers, Web addresses: always check them.

• Dates and times: Check ’em, make sure they are
  correct. Make sure the date matches the day. Or, just
  make sure they are there if needed.

• Rounding: It’s OK to round off large numbers; you can
  use 1.2 million instead of 1,211,241, for instance. But be
  careful rounding to just two digits – rounding 1,662,000
  up to 1.7 million leaves out almost 40,000 of whatever.
  Maybe it’s more accurate to round down to 1.66 million
         Newsroom math: Danger areas
• “About”: The word about indicates an estimate follows.
  It’s not a total. Therefore, “totaling about” is an incorrect
  usage. Also, when an exact number is presented, it
  should never be preceded by “about.”

• Millions vs. billions: Often one becomes the other in
  stories. Or, is just missed altogether.

• Rates: A rate compares numbers against a common,
  unvarying base number, much like a percentage.
  Beware of saying the rate has gone up or down, just
  because the number did so. The base number – such as
  a population -- may have also changed over the same
  time frame, and that would affect the rate.
  Newsroom math: Rates handout, example
A commonly used rate is a homicide rate, which is the number of
homicides per 100,000 residents of a city.

Example: Houston’s population in the 2000 census was 1.95 million,
so let’s round to 2 million. Let’s say 350 people were murdered in 2005.
So …

350 / 2 million = .000175 x 100,000 = 17.5. Houston’s murder rate for
2005 would be 17.5 persons per 100,000 population.

If, when 2006 comes, the number of murders went up but the
population also rose, the rate may actually decline:

360 / 2.2 million = .0001636 x 100,000 = about 16.4 persons per
100,000 population
             Newsroom math: Tax rates
Government bodies get revenue from a variety of sources –
grants, utility bills, franchise fees (such as cable TV), fines, user
fees (parks), sales tax, bonds etc. But the primary source for
most entities is from taxes levied on commercial and residential

Texas law requires that the actual appraised value of the
property, not some assessed value, be used in the property tax
equation. County appraisal districts provide property values to all
of the governmental bodies in that county. The government body
-- a school board, city council, utility district, fire department
district etc. -- sets a tax rate, which is then applied to every $100
(the base number) of the property’s appraised value. In your
stories, the style for referring to tax rates is: The board approved
a tax rate of $1.12 per $100 value.
                      More on tax rates
When doing stories about budgets and tax rates, provide the reader
with an example of how the tax rate will affect the average
homeowner. Appraisal districts can tell what the average price is for a
home in a particular community.

Examples: Let’s say you have a $120,000 home in Katy

• Katy ISD tax rate is $1.10 per $100 value. 120,000 divided by 100 =
  1,200 x 1.10 = $1,320 that you owe Katy ISD

• City of Katy tax rate is 95 cents per $100 value. 120,000 divided by
  100 = 1,200 x .95 = $1,140 that you owe the city of Katy

Note that commercial and residential tax rates may differ. Also note
that a variety of tax exemptions could reduce the amount owed.
                   Help with math

You might want to bookmark these Web sites:


• (Go to the calculate this link)

Fun with numbers

• Find the math or word errors (or questionable usage) in
  these 10 sentences. There is one bonus sentence.

• Note that the “error” may not be immediately evident (like
  an incorrect score); instead, it may be something that
  raises a question.

• All “errors” are derived from the “danger areas” listed in
  this lecture

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