Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Numbers.
1.5 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. There have been 118,000 deaths from COVID-19 in America. Some are proposing cutting the New York Police Department’s budget from $6 billion to $5 billion. These are all headlines rolled out by top-tier media outlets within the last week. These numbers convey a sense of scale and importance, shocking the reader, but the articles that follow often lack the appropriate context and necessary information. There are three easy-to-implement writing strategies when discussing numbers that can help communicators better connect with their audiences and create content that has true staying power.
Relate the Figure to a Commonly Understood NumberAmerica is a big country, so most media coverage is going to have to contend with enormous figures that are rarely applicable to daily life. For example, over the last few months, most major outlets have reported on the skyrocketing unemployment figures—with the most recent wave of headlines discussing America’s 45.7 million new unemployment claims over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak. There are ways to more effectively show this number’s importance. For example, 45.7 million Americans unemployed is more than the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville combined. This lack of context leaves readers even more in the dark when discussing political fundraising. Outlets this week covered the Biden Campaign and the DNC out fundraising their Republican counterparts for the first time this cycle, raising a whopping $80.8 million. But most people, myself included, don’t have a baseline understanding of what that much money can buy you or how it could help a candidate win an election. Political coverage can (and, in my opinion, should) contextualize these numbers, comparing them to past campaign’s expenditures and the cost of a commonly known item. For example:
- $80.8 million—enough to buy 14 prime-time Super Bowl ads.
- $80.8 million—a fraction of the more than $500 million raised by the Clinton campaign in the 2016 election.