Although journalism is about telling stories with words, numbers are ever more important in a data-driven age.
The challenge for journalists is to put them into a context that readers find useful. That usually means we won’t simply be parroting back what press spokesmen tell us.
One tactic of the PIOs is to use numbers instead of percentages. The Ducey camp likes to tout the $3.5 billion that Prop. 123 will pump into school funding over 10 years. Except that the state will already be planning to spend at least $40 billion, so the increase will be 8 percent – still not good enough to move Arizona much beyond 49th place in state school spending per pupil.
Polls are another numbers game. When they are produced by a candidate, a party or a PAC with an interest in the outcome, we ignore them. They can be too easily manipulated by how a question is asked or who is polled. We usually report only polls by neutral, professional pollsters.
Achievement test scores are tricky to decipher based on only one year or in isolation from test results from similar schools. That’s why we usually include several years and schools for comparison. And when FUSD started breaking out high school magnet program scores, we reported those to give readers a clearer picture of how those college preparatory students compare to ones at Basis or NPA.
House values can also be tricky, especially when the assessed value is so different from the median sales prices. But newsprint is a great platform for lists that can be clipped and saved, so we try to provide complete tables of both – look the annual valuation list for dozens of Flagstaff neighborhoods no later than early March.
You have free articles remaining.
Then there’s median income in a college town. Household income is the standard measure, but that includes many college students who skew the figure lower than in non-college towns. Families, however, are defined as two or more related persons, and they are the ones usually buying houses and cars. In Flagstaff, the household median as of 2014 according to the U.S. Census was $48,000, while the family median was $61,000.
Monthly jobless rates in small cities are usually less definitive than the decimal point would make them appear. In larger cities like Phoenix and Tucson, the rates are based in part on actual claims filed for benefits. In Flagstaff, they are based in part on employer surveys but are far less precise, so take them with a grain of salt – or round them to the nearest whole number.
Budget surpluses can also be hard to decipher. Some localities account for every possible revenue source so that they are authorized to spend it if it comes in. When it doesn’t, the budgeted figure is sometimes rolled over into the next year, no matter how unrealistic. But at least it makes it easy for the agency to say it didn’t overspend its budget.
Finally, there is the difference between a tax deduction and tax credit. The former is based on your tax bracket (say, 28 percent) the latter is a 1-for-1 tax refund of an expense up to a certain limit. It obviously makes a difference to both the taxpayer and the agency handing out the deductions and credits. I wish I knew an easy way to make it clearer to readers, though. Any suggestions?
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 556-2254.