Words and numbers in journalism: How to tell when your story needs data

I’m not convinced that journalists are always aware when they should be thinking about numbers. Usually, by training and habit, they are thinking about words. But there are deep relationships between words and numbers in our everyday language, if you stop to think about them.

A quantity is an amount, something that can be compared, measured or counted — in short, a number. It’s an ancient idea, so ancient that it is deeply embedded in every human language. Words like “less” and “every” are obviously quantitative, but so are more complex concepts like “trend” and “significant.” Quantitative thinking starts with recognizing when someone is talking about quantities.

Consider this sentence from the article Anti-Intellectualism is Killing America which appeared in Psychology Today:

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value.

This is pure cultural critique, and it can be interpreted many different ways. To start with, I don’t know of standard and precise meanings for “critical thinking” and “cultural value.” We could also read this paragraph as a rant, an exaggeration for effect, or an account of the author’s personal experience. Maybe it’s art. But journalism is traditionally understood as “non-fiction,” and there is an empirical and quantitative claim at the heart of this language.

“Critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value” is an empirical statement because it speaks about something that is happening in the world with observable consequences. It is, in principle, a statement that can be tested against history. This gives us a basis for saying whether it’s true or false.

It’s quantitative because the word “abandoned” speaks about comparing amounts at two different times: something that we never had cannot be abandoned. At each point in time we need to decide whether or not “critical thinking” is a “cultural value.” This is in principle a yes or no question. A more realistic answer might involve shades of gray based on the number of people and institutions who are embodying the value of critical thinking, or perhaps how many acts of critical thinking are occurring. Of course “critical thinking” is not an easy thing to pin down, but if we choose any definition at all we are literally deciding which things “count” as critical thinking.

One way or another, testing this claim demands that we count something at two different points in time, and look for a big drop in the number. Compare this with the evidence provided:

  • a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell”
  • the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax
  • almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president

The first two pieces of evidence seem to me more anti-science than anti-critical thinking, but let’s suppose our definitions allow it. The real problem is that these are anecdotes – which is just a judgmental word for “examples.” Anecdotes make poor evidence when it’s just as easy to come up with examples on the other side. Yeah, someone brought a snowball into Congress to argue against climate change, but also the EPA decided to start regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The issue is one of generalization: we can’t draw conclusions about the state of an entire culture from just a few specific examples. Generalization is tricky at the best of times, but it’s much easier when you can count or measure the entirety of something. Instead we have only scattered facts, and no information about whether these cases are representative of the whole.

Or, as in historian G. Kitson Clark’s famous advice about generalization:

Do not guess; try to count. And if you cannot count, admit that you are guessing.

The fact that “one in three citizens can’t name the vice president” is closer to the sort of evidence we need. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, whether being able to name the vice president is really a good indication that “critical thinking” is a “cultural value.” This statement is still stronger than the first two examples because it generalizes in a way that individual examples cannot: it makes a claim about all U.S. citizens. It doesn’t matter how many people I can name who know who the vice president is, because we know (by counting) that there are 100 million who cannot. But this still only addresses one point in time. Were things better before? Was there any point in history where more than two thirds of the population could name the vice-president? We don’t know.

In short, the evidence in this paragraph is fundamentally not the right type. The word “abandoned” has embedded quantitative concepts that are not being properly handled. We need something tested or measured or counted across the entire culture at two different points in time, and we don’t have that.

Very many words have quantitative aspects. Words like “all” “every” “none” and “some” are so explicitly quantitative that they’re called “quantifiers” in mathematics. Comparisons like “more” and “fewer” are explicitly about counting, but much richer words like “better” and “worse” also require counting or measuring at least two things. There are words that compare different points in time, like “trend” “progress” and “abandoned.” There are words that imply magnitudes such as “few” “gargantuan” and “scant.” A series of Greek philosophers, long before Christ, showed that the logic of “if” “then” “and” “or” and “not” could be captured symbolically. To be sure, all of these words have meanings and resonances far beyond the mathematical. But they lose their central meaning if the quantitative core is ignored.

The relation between words and numbers is of fundamental importance in journalism. It tells you when you need to get quantitative. It’s essential for planning data journalism work and for communicating the results. It’s the heart of the data journalist’s job, really. The first step is to become aware of when quantitative concepts are being used in everyday language.

 

Not Quite Global New Year

Today I have been keeping Twitter window open, watching messages tagged #10yearsago scroll by. It’s striking. This is the sort of grass-roots expression of hopes and dreams that adventurous journalists used to travel the world for, and compile into coffee table books. Now we can all see it live for free.

aricaaa #10yearsago boys still had cooties. ah i miss those days!

davidwees Happy New Year! #10yearsago today I was in a dead-end job working in a warehouse. Now I love what I do and have a great family.

scottharrison: #10yearsago I was a sycophant and a drunk selling vodka to bankers in clubs. Grateful for God’s grace and sense of humor.

Sirenism #10yearsago I was eleven and one of my brothers friends tried to kiss me at midnight. I punched him in the nuts.

cosmicjester Holy Shit #10yearsago I met a girl at a friends birthday party, we both liked Red Dwarf and the Beatles. Then she became the girl.

shaunraney #10yearsago was the the saddest day of my life.

As striking as this is, I notice that almost all of the traffic is in English. The only other language reasonably well represented is Indonesian. Curious, though it is the 4th largest country by population, and social media are hugely popular here.

I’ve also really enjoyed watching the clock strike midnight in different time zones. Here in Jakarta, the NYE conversations of my friends in California — 13 hours behind — seem so last night. I’m nursing a hangover, they’re working on one.

It’s so easy to forget the world outside what you know. I hope that global media like Twitter will help us to remember everyone else. The technological means have arrived with a roar, but we’re still not really talking to one another. What is the next step?

How Many World Wide Webs Are There?

newblog-crop

How much overlap is there between the web in different languages, and what sites act as gateways for information between them? Many people have constructed partial maps of the web (such as the  blogosphere map by Matthew Hurst, above) but as far as I know, the entire web has never been systematically mapped in terms of language.

Of course, what I actually want to know is, how connected are the different cultures of the world, really? We live in an age where the world seems small, and in a strictly technological sense it is. I have at my command this very instant not one but several enormous international communications networks; I could email, IM, text message, or call someone in any country in the world. And yet I very rarely do.

Similarly, it’s easy to feel like we’re surrounded by all the international information we could possibly want, including direct access to foreign news services, but I can only read articles and watch reports in English. As a result, information is firewalled between cultures; there are questions that could very easily be answered by any one of tens or hundreds of millions of native speakers, yet are very difficult for me to answer personally. For example, what is the journalistic slant of al-Jazeera, the original one in Arabic, not the English version which is produced by a completely different staff?  Or, suppose I wanted to know what the average citizen of Indonesia thinks of the sweatshops there, or what is on the front page of the Shanghai Times today– and does such a newspaper even exist? What is written on the 70% of web pages that are not in English?

Continue reading How Many World Wide Webs Are There?

In Ur Suburb, Selling U Burgers

Burger King has gone lol!!!

OMG!!! The local Burger King Slurpee machine sez: “cool it with ur fav flav.” Lolspeak is in ur multi-national!

Corporate America can has teh funny? No wai, only wants sell cheezburgers! Co-option of kulcher? Mebbeh. Or mebbeh teh kittehs win!

LOL!

Mai theweh, let me show you it. Lolspek is awsum meme, like new languish, even haz dik-shun-ary. Teh hoomans who lieks kittehs lieks cheezburgers too, so teh burger stoar lurnz lolspeaks.

But mebbe if enuf mawket-urs has teh lolspeak, iz not “authentic” n e moar? I doan no! Kwestions of “authenticity” in kulcher make mai hed asplode!

Americans Have Only Their Own Culture

The whole world watches Hollywood movies. I once found X-Men 2 on cable in Oman, the sex and violence airing between the preaching Imams. The whole world reads Western books, either in English or translation. The Da Vinci Code graces the dirty blankets of sidewalk booksellers in Mumbai, and Harry Potter is truly global.

Those who don’t live in America are lucky. They have at least two cultures: their own, and the American imports. Those who live within America are impoverished by comparison. Americans have to go well out of their way to consume media made by people who aren’t like them. We have to go to the “Foreign” section of the video store. We have to suffer through languages we don’t understand, because we are taught only English in schools.

This same effect is repeated on a smaller scale with regional cultural capitals. In Southeast Asia, all the good movies come from Thailand. In Nepal, everything is from India. South Africa produces most of the African media, while Qatar and Egypt supply the Arab world. In every case, media in the minority countries is often much more diverse, drawing from many sources.

Maybe this is imperialism. Maybe this is a bad thing. Maybe every peoples should be producing their own entertainments just as furiously as Hollywood. Maybe. My point is only this: if you live outside of the Empire, the Empire comes to you. But if you live inside, you have to look to find the rest of the world.