Slipping numeracy into reporting class

I’ve started putting into action one of the most important things I learned at the AEJMC meetings in Denver last month. I’m not waiting for that special day, that somewhere-over-the-rainbow day, when every student in our program takes a class devoted to quantitative literacy. I’m focusing now on ways to incorporate quantitative thinking into lessons and discussions that ostensibly have little to do with numbers.

On Tuesday, for example, I gave my introductory reporting class its first weekly current-events quiz and included a couple of questions about President Obama’s speech on Iraq. I asked:

In his Oval Office address last week, President Obama said the U.S. has spent more than _________________ on war in the past decade.
a. $10 billion
b. $75 billion
c. $1 trillion
d. $10 trillion

The answer is C, $1 trillion. But more important, this was an opportunity to discuss estimation and to talk about which numbers pass the sniff test.  What is a billion? A trillion? How can we make sense of these numbers not only to readers but also to ourselves?
The key, I told my students, is to keep some number comparisons in your mental back pocket so you can pull them out easily. For billions and trillions, I said, I’d use our university’s annual budget of nearly $2 billion. Is it likely  that seven years of fighting two wars cost the United States $10 billion, or only five times as much as it costs to run the campus for a year? The students didn’t think so, and they didn’t think $75 billion smelled right, either.
So what about $1 trillion versus $10 trillion?
I called up some comparisons and visualizations I had found online simply by searching “how big is a trillion dollars.” From NASA, I learned that a trillion seconds is more than 31,000 years. The students mulled the notion broached by Sen. Mitch McConnell during last year’s debate on the economic stimulus package that if someone had spent $1 million a day since the day of Jesus’ birth, he still wouldn’t have spent $1 trillion. (True.)  This graphic made the students laugh, but it brought home the point that a trillion dollars is a huge amount of money, an almost inconceivable amount. So before you start speculating that something cost multiple trillions, you’d better have a good reason for doing so.
I have to thank Professor Norm Lewis of the University of  Florida, a veteran editor and master teacher with a longtime interest in numbers, for demonstrating how easy it is to bring numeracy into reporting classes. Norm shared a PowerPoint at an early-morning panel on journalists and numbers at AEJMC.  The slide that really got me was one in which he brought numbers into a discussion of hyphen use. He asked whether the hyphen in “single-parent households” was necessary. Then, he said, he asked the students what percentage of U.S. households were, in fact, headed by a single parent — and then he showed them how to find out on
Interestingly, the figure Norm gave was about 9 percent — well below students’ expectations. And with a little digging of my own, I found that to be true — 9 percent of all U.S. households are single-parent homes. But  if you look at the percentage of all family households that have just one resident parent, the proportion rises 29 percent, which is much more in line with most people’s expectations. Caveat notwithstanding — and that caveat itself makes for a neat little Q Lit aside — I love the idea of using a grammar lesson to teach numeracy.
    • Glowatzy
    • September 14th, 2010

    No matter how much I read about budgets, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it all. I hope the Jesus analogy helps, but maybe the problem is that they’re spending too much of our money!

    • TC
    • September 14th, 2010

    I still remember your numeracy lab. I was young then and didn’t give numbers their credence, now I know how important they are.

    The only thing that concerns me is that journalists will sometimes take advantage of the fact that their audience can be numb to numbers. Perhaps we [journalists] need to find a way to bring similar analogies into every story so that people see how astronomical, or not-so, certain figures are. In an economy that is widely believed to be faltering, ensuring people understand the truth about our reported numbers is vital.

    For example, last year I covered the proposed tuition increases in store for Stony Brook had PHEEIA been passed with the SUNY budget (I’m sure you remember me having you crunch the numbers with me because they seemed too small). People were panicking because they KNEW they paid $14,000/year to go to Stony Brook (more if they were out of state) and they were expecting a six to seven percent increase in that number. They were misinformed. As it turned out tuition was only a fraction of that $14,000 and the increase would have ended up being around $300 for in-state students.

    Although using percentages was a crisper way of writing about the increases, there was more “truth” to using the value of $300.

    When I conducted my interviews I used the percentages first to get reactions from people. Most of them became quite angry, and said things like “I came here because it was a good school for a great price…” but once I told them the increase only amounted to about $300 their faces would relax and they’d so “Oh, that’s not so bad.”

    I fear that often times, particularly with television, news organizations will use percentages that make things sound bigger because people’s reactions are much more appealing than “Oh, that’s not so bad,” but where is the journalism in that?

    If you want to see what I mean check out my PHEEIA piece at

    • suzanne foye
    • October 17th, 2010

    Barbara–good piece. The media could help on this issue of numeracy when they cover the story of a politician handling out $100 of taxpayer money to the Little League to note that it cost $110 to make this grant. This is especially the case since Long Island sends far more to Albany than we receive back (ditto Washington as the sainted Daniel Patrick Moynihan reported each year when he was US Senator). good work

    • Bob Calandra
    • October 18th, 2010

    Barbara – What an important lesson for young journalists. I remember being so over my head covering my first school board budget. I wrote what I thought was a pretty good story, complete with all the numbers and tax increase percentage provided by the district’s school board. My editor dropped the story on my desk and asked me what the proposed three percent tax increase would mean to the owner of a $100,000 home or a $200,000 home. I had no idea. As journalists, she said, our job was to demystify the numbers and tell readers what the tax increase cost in dollars and cents. She said that was information people could use.

    • Olga
    • May 16th, 2013

    I will immediately snatch your rss feed as I can not find your email subscription link or newsletter service. Do you’ve any?

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