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Numbers Without Meaning are, Well, Numbers

Have you noticed all the numbers being tossed around lately? Second biggest one-day drop in oil in 25 years. First time the Dow closed below 11,000 in 2 years. And on and on ...

An old college room mate used to rail about numbers like this in news stories. He argued they were often irrelevant and contrived. If you play with time frames, you can pretty much get any number to be the "first" or "second" in a series. (And you can make them spooky, as we've noted before).

Nevertheless, we constantly throw them into news stories. Why? 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. The numbers above, for instance, show that our main source of energy is getting more unstable price-wise, although perhaps not as wild as the oil shocks of the 1970s. (To get perspective on oil prices, check out our By The Numbers blog). The latter says we've lost the last two years of market gains. Wait'll that shows up in your 401k. Then you'll have context.

Update

And since I wrote this, the CPI has come out ... Biggest gain in 26 years. Hmmmm

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