Let Me Try Again: I Wish That
Journalists Would Use Numbers With Care

I wish that journalism schools would offer, either in Journalism I or in an advanced course, some education in journalistic use of numbers, including the practice of offering estimates as simple factual reporting of exact numbers.

For example, we read time after time of unemployment percentages moving up or down by some precise percentage.  Rarely if ever is there an explanation of how such unbelievably precise figures are arrived at.

Another example:  Repeated references to the percentage of people living below the poverty level, rarely accompanied by an explanation of how the poverty level is determined or any explanation of how the percentages of people living below that level are determined.  They are, of course, simply unexplained estimates.

Then there is the matter of reporting poll results, which usually start out with some such generalization as saying, “A majority of Americans believe…”  No poll can determine the percentage of Americans who believe anything.

Frequently well down in the story, the writer reports that the conclusions about what all Americans think is based on a survey of a relative handful of Americans—perhaps 1,500 or so—supposedly selected in a way that their answers will reasonably closely reflect the responses if all Americans (or all Americans of voting age, in most cases) had been polled.

Even conceding that polling experts may be right—that a miniscule sample can reasonably closely reflect the feelings of scores of millions of Americans if they had been asked the same question—why don’t responsible journalists report something like this:  “Fifty-seven percent of the 1,850 Americans questioned in a recent poll responded that…”

More Honesty, Please, In Reporting Polls

Also important in honest reporting of polls would be the number of persons who declined to be polled.  Some observers believe that a large percentage of turndowns raises some question as to the results of the poll.  And there should be some recognition of the fact that, increasingly, some Americans depend on their cellular ‘phone and aren’t available to answer calls at numbers taken from a telephone directory.

Some recent examples of other misuse—is abuse a more appropriate word?—of numbers in so-called “news” stories:

The front page headline in USA Today read:  “Hospital care fatal for some patients.”  The lead paragraph read:  “An estimated 15,000 Medicare patients die each month in part because of care they receive in the hospital, says a government study released today.”

The third paragraph said that the study focused on exactly 424 Medicare patients discharged from hospitals in one month, October, 2008.

Let’s see now:  How can 424 patients “discharged” from hospitals in a given month be used as the basis for a conclusion that 15,000 Medicare patients die every month because of poor hospital care?

Researchers Didn’t Find What AP Reported

Then there was the Associated Press story from London which started thus:  “Secondhand smoke kills more than 600,000 people worldwide every year, a new report says.”

As the basis for the report, the Associated Press said, “researchers analyzed data from 2004 for 192 countries.  They found 40% of children and more than 30% of nonsmoking men and women regularly breathe in secondhand smoke.”

The researchers, of course, found no such thing.  There’s no way that they could have conducted research which would show, accurately and without question, the percentage of people who are exposed to secondhand smoke.

Consider a story which appeared under a headline which read:  “Omaha not as healthy as many other metro areas.”  The story said that federal data (no details supplied) and local analysts (not explained) indicated that the Omaha area ranked 142nd out of 182 areas according to the 2010 Live Well Omaha Health Summit described as a group of 45 health-related organizations.

Readers were expected to believe that researchers had somehow come up with reliable findings (not described as estimates) such as these:  “Close to two-thirds of Douglas County residents are overweight.  And only about 30% engage in 20 minutes or more of vigorous activity three or more times a week.”

Some conclusions as to the need for many Douglas County residents to lose weight or to exercise more might well be justified and useful advice, but the case for such action is, as I see it, not helped by offering unexplained figures as though they were precisely determined facts.

As might have been expected, good health news wasn’t reported until the final two paragraphs of the story:

The number per 100,000 population of heart disease deaths in Douglas County dropped to 143.8 last year from 179.5 deaths in 2005.  The number per 100,000 population of colorectal cancer deaths in Douglas County dropped to 15.1 last year from 18.8 in 2005.

* * *

Is Bush ‘Divisive,’ Obama Not Divisive?

A final report—for today—on the use or misuse of polls:

A McClatchy Newspapers national news report was guilty, as I see it, of putting a misleading spin on a story involving a poll, this time a Gallup poll.

The McClatchy report finished a story about former President George W. Bush’s book promotion tour with these words:

“Bush remains a divisive figure two years after leaving office—though he’s not so deeply unpopular.

“A Gallup poll this summer found 45% of Americans had a favorable opinion of him while 51% had a unfavorable opinion.  Two years earlier, 39% had a favorable opinion and 61% had an unfavorable opinion of him.”

So, in the opinion of McClatchy editors, with an unfavorable-opinion rating of 51%, Bush “remains a divisive figure.”  What is the former president “dividing”?

An October New York Times/CBS poll showed that President Obama’s approval rating “remains below 50%”?  Among registered voters, it was 43%.

I think it’s a safe bet that the McClutchy editors wouldn’t put a “divisive figure” label on President Obama even though his approval rating “remains below 50%” among all those polled and 43% among registered voters.

Advice to pollsters and journalists:

Just give us the numbers, please.  Readers will make their own interpretation.

* * *

So We Won’t Be Playing Missouri
And Colorado Any Longer?  Good Riddance

Again this week, I can’t resist commenting on the college football scene and the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ place in it.

Conceding possible prejudice as a dedicated Husker fan since I saw my first game in Memorial Stadium 77 years ago, how can the supposedly carefully-calculated BCS team rankings place Missouri at No. 12 one place ahead of Nebraska.

We beat Missouri decisively and have, as do the Tigers, a 10-2 season record.  We didn’t lose a game in the Big 12 North Division and the Huskers, not Missouri, will be representing that division in the Big 12 championship playoff game in Dallas Saturday.

I would speculate that Missouri gets special consideration because one of their 10 victories was over Oklahoma, which was No. 1 in the BCS rankings at the time.

Whatever, it will be Nebraska, not Missouri, playing for the Big 12 championship against Oklahoma in Dallas come Saturday.

Best post-game quote following Nebraska’s 45-17 dismantling of Colorado last Friday came, I believe, from NU head coach Bo Pelini after Husker Rex Burkhead’s performance running for one touchdown and passing for two others:  “They ought to put his picture next to football player in the dictionary.”

A final thought (for today):  No matter how this season comes out—I hope, of course, that we finish with two more wins—we will have the satisfaction of having decisively defeated Missouri and Colorado, the two teams with the most abusive fans in the Big 12 conference.  And we won’t be required to play them any more.

Good riddance of those two rivalries.

* * *

I Wish The UNO Hockey Team Well
But Do They Need All That Coverage?

Most surprising headline in recent memory:

“Time to recognize Blais, Mav Hockey.”

The headline appeared over a sports commentator’s column which appeared November 18.  Would it be possible that the columnist has not been aware of the wall-to-wall coverage of the Maverick hockey team since Dean Blais became head coach in 2009?

I had no reason to keep track of the number of times readers were told that Blais won two national championships while coaching hockey at the University of North Dakota, but that fact must be among the most often repeated in the history of local sports coverage.

On the eve of the start of the Mavericks’ 2009 hockey season, Coach Blais and newly-hired assistant coach Mike Hastings and two unidentified hockey players were featured in a color photo that took up nearly the entire front page of a four-page special section.  An inside page was devoted to the Mavericks and their schedule and pictures and a brief biography of each of 25 squad members, plus pictures and brief biographical sketches of Coach Blais and his two assistants.

Twenty-five squad members?  Isn’t it true that you can have only a maximum of six players on the ice at any given time, and this includes a goalie who may play the entire game?

One of the inside pages was devoted to pictures and biographical sketches of 26 Omaha Lancers squad members.

In the total of 52 squad members on the two teams, there was one player identified as being from Nebraska—an Omahan on the Lancers roster.

Two Teams Make Us ‘Amateur Hockey Capital’?

On the back page of the section there was a column about the Lancers’ return to Omaha from a Council Bluffs arena.  The column indicated that people in the hockey world call Omaha the “amateur hockey capital” of the U.S.  There was no indication of how the columnist knew this.

During the Mavs first season under Coach Blais the Mavericks continued to get extensive (would “massive” be too strong a word?) coverage.

Then, between seasons, at end of June, when presumably a good many Omahans would not be that interested in massive coverage of Maverick hockey, there was another page-dominating story illustrated with action pictures of each of four members of the 2010 Maverick recruiting class.

If the outstanding prospects in the annual recruiting class of the Nebraska Cornhuskers—who, I believe, have at least as large and rabid a following as the UNO Mavericks—are depicted in such front-page big color action photographs, I must have missed that day’s edition.

Win or lose, at home or away, the Mavs continue to get detailed front-page-sports-section play for each two-game series.  Even when the Mavs had a late-November weekend off, they got front-page coverage with a story and a color picture six days before their next game.

I think hockey can be an exciting sport, and I wish the Mavs well.  But I don’t think their cause is helped by story after story with seemingly endless detail—coverage which seems to me to be of great interest only to a relatively small hardcore of Mav followers who enjoy watching hockey and drinking beer in the Qwest Arena.

* * *

The ‘Sports Babe’ Speaks Again

As her friends and acquaintances and readers of this column know, my roommate has a remarkable store of information about sports teams and those who play on those teams.

The most recent evidence:  We were watching a Green Bay Packers/Minnesota Vikings game on television one evening when a Packer returned a kickoff to near midfield.  Marian’s comment:  “That was Percy Harvin.  He’s a marvelous wide receiver.  He played with Tim Tebow at Florida.

“He has terrible migraine headaches.  They had to take him to the hospital from the practice field.”

The expert, whom some of us affectionately call “The Sports Babe,” had spoken once again.

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2 Responses to Let Me Try Again: I Wish That
Journalists Would Use Numbers With Care

  1. sealion says:

    and I wish that Journalism schools would offer classes in political objectivity…

  2. MavBridget says:

    The UNO Mavericks — currently ranked one of the top 10 teams in the entire nation in men’s college hockey — get too MUCH coverage?

    The UNO Mavericks — designated “Omaha’s Team” by UNO AD Trev Alberts — get too much coverage in an OMAHA newspaper … while you complain that the Huskers don’t get that kind of coverage?

    The UNO Mavericks (and the Omaha Lancers) don’t have enough OMAHA (or NEBRASKA) players on the teams, when the state has produced only a handful of homegrown kids that have gone on to play with distinction in college hockey (and/or the NHL) anywhere?

    I can’t believe I’m even dignifying your post with a response, but here it is.
    You denigrate what you do not know. Why don’t you come out to a game (I’ll treat!) and see what’s special about this team, this coach, these fans.

    We’re not a “relatively small hardcore of Mav followers who enjoy watching hockey and drinking beer in the Qwest Arena” — we’re UNO students and alumni, citizens of Omaha, who are increasing in number and pride as we enjoy this little school in Omaha kicking the behinds of those “BIG 10″ schools — there is one D-1 team in Nebraska that has already knocked off Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio State… and it’s the one with the central Omaha campus.

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