OLD Media Moves

Business journalism and numbers

July 17, 2008

CNBC.com managing editor Allen Wastler worries about the overuse of numbers in business stories.

Allen WastlerWastler writes, “Well, we’re drilled by journalism schools and gnarly old editors to give reports context and comparative meaning. These types of number references do that to a certain extent. The number-fed perspective also gives you a sense of history … which makes you feel like what you’re writing about is important. The trap is using overblown numbers to over-amplify a story. You see this in articles throwing out huge percentage gains/losses without supplying the base number.

“Another trap is that numbers can let you weasel out of the all-important ‘nut graph’ — the paragraph that lets the reader know why this story is important. Old school editors, like me, usually like to see this as the second or third graph in a story. The number reference often can often hide the notion that the writer never really answered the question: ‘Why is this story important.’ Sometimes the answer is milder than the writer would like it to be. Nevertheless, all stories, large and small, can be important … depending on the reader.

“Don’t get me wrong. Numbers in stories are important. It’s just they should lead somewhere and not be the be-all-end-all.”

Read more here.

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