Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Tyranny of Numbers

Reporting numbers is generally a straightforward task. Facts are facts, after all. Time after time, though journalists get them wrong. Whether it's because they are racing to get the story first or they are sloppy with their math there is an essential truth of preparing people to talk with a reporter:

Journalists get numbers wrong. A lot.

Even simple numbers are misreported. Like someone's age. Legendary music produce Phil Ramone died this past weekend. He was 79. Or 72. Or 82.

If you are reading this, you've listened to music that Phil Ramone had a hand in getting from a recording studio to your ears. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Stan Getz, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Billy Joel and dozens of others including my personal favorite Shelby Lynne

According to most of the stories, the man won 14 Grammys. Or 15 if you actually count the number listed in an Associated Press story. 
New York Times, 3.31.2013

What the clips above tell us is that the The New York Times is at least as accurate as East Idaho News. 

When you have numbers that you want a journalist to get right, here are a few tips. 

Repeat numbers early and often. One of the best news directors I've ever had assigned me the same story three days in a row. When I asked him why we were doing the same story again, he told me, "Because it's important. So we'll tell them, tell them again and then tell them some more so they get it." That's good advice. Don't just tell the reporter a critical number once and hope they get it. Tell them several times so they know it's important. 
Give reporters a fact sheet. A lot of journalists like to conduct their interviews casually and therefore don't take as accurate of notes as you might think. Giving the reporter a fact sheet gives them something to refer back to later on in the newsroom. 

Correct the record. When a reporter gets a number wrong in a story about you or your company, it's ok to call or email them to correct the record. Since stories will live on forever online, it is helpful if they live on correctly. 

Remember journalists are human. Humans make mistakes. This means you should do everything in your power to help journalists get the numbers right when the story is is about you or your company. 

None of those tips absolve journalists from their responsibility to get things right and double check their facts. 

Reality, though, dictates that your reputation is better off in your hands than in the hands of someone who has to do math on deadline.

Bill Salvin