This is another Training Tracks blog post from the archive of No Train, No Gain, originally published Oct. 12, 2004:
If you, or some journalists you coach, have trouble using numbers, or words that act as surrogates for numbers, perhaps you should “Go Figure.”
Matt Baron, a freelance writer and trainer, provides help for mathematically challenged journalists through his “Go Figure” workshops and columns.
You don’t need to know lots of math to understand the workshops or the columns. Without being condescending, Matt makes the issues he writes and talks about simple and understandable.
His October column is an example. First, a writer can’t be condescending when he’s taking himself to task. Matt, who lives in Oak Park, Ill., covers some suburbs for the Chicago Tribune. In a recent story he described a person as “widely regarded … as a viable candidate” to challenge a town’s mayor.
The mayor’s spokesman challenged Matt’s use of “widely regarded.” Matt had actually armed the spokesman for this discussion with a recent lecture for use of “several,” a vague word that is one of Matt’s pet peeves.
Any journalist hates to admit that a challenging flack is right, but this one was and Matt did. “Of the town’s 85,000 residents, I could not say with any certainty that the trustee was ‘widely regarded’ as a viable candidate for dogcatcher, Man of the Year, or anything else, for that matter,” Matt wrote.
He had been caught using what he calls Cuties, short for Quantitative Terms (QT’s): “Without even realizing it, we express a mathematical assertion with terms such as: consistently, constantly, conventionally, customarily, frequently, habitually, incessantly, increasingly, infrequently, intermittently, mostly, normally, occasionally, oftentimes, periodically, regularly, religiously, repeatedly, routinely, seasonally, sporadically, traditionally, typically, usually.”
I took the list as a challenge. I ran each of those words, plus several and widely, through my newspaper’s library to see how many times I had used each since 2000. Ouch! Several, the first word I tested, appeared more than 100 times. I’m not telling you how many. It hurts enough to tell you I was vague that often.
Several (yes, I’m being intentionally vague here) of the words appeared more than a dozen times each in my copy. Lots (hey, there’s a QT that wasn’t on Matt’s list) of the words, I was relieved to find, never appeared in my copy. But the bottom line was undeniable: I had used the Cuties on Matt’s list 361 times this millennium and I’m pretty sure no more than a handful (Matt, your long list needs to grow) were supported by the research that ensured their accuracy, or at least their precision. Actually, I’ve written scads (there’s another) of stories dealing with religion. I might have used religiously accurately.
My point is that Matt’s columns and workshops teach effective use not just of numbers, but of the words we use to express numbers. And they are easy to understand, even when he deals more heavily with numbers themselves than he did in the October column.
You can take advantage of Matt’s “Go Figure” services one of two ways:
- E-mail him to discuss presenting his “Go Figure” workshops for your newsroom or organization. (He does workshops on other topics as well, including deadline reporting and reporting on crises.) The workshops aren’t free, but I sat in on one last year at the New York State Press Association convention, and I’ll vouch that he provides valuable training that’s fun and easy to understand.
- Visit his website and read his archive of old columns.
And if you like baseball, you can also find some interesting columns about baseball statistics on Matt’s Web site. If you e-mail Matt about baseball, be gentle. He grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Chicago. So the poor guy is a Cubs fan and a Red Sox fan. He “was hoping for a clash in the World Series between these historical heart-breakers.” But then his Cubs collapsed. And now his Red Sox are heading for another heart-break against my Yankees.
As I told Matt, the Cubs and Red Sox consistently, constantly, conventionally, customarily, frequently, habitually, incessantly, increasingly, mostly, normally, occasionally, oftentimes, periodically, regularly, religiously, repeatedly, routinely, sporadically, traditionally, typically and usually disappoint their fans.
They are widely regarded as cursed.
Update: As noted in the introductory note, this was written in mid-October 2004. As a Yankee fan, it pains me to note that my trash-talking about the Red Sox being widely regarded as cursed was outdated less than a month later. Matt now operates Inside Edge, his own public relations and media services operation. I’m betting he’s widely regarded by clients as helpful and fun to work with. Though he no longer writes “Go Figure!,” the archive is linked from the Inside Edge site, with the most recent entry in April 2009. His “about” page provides an update on Matt.
Here are a couple YouTube clips from Matt’s “Go Figure!” workshops: