Monday, July 11, 2011

Numbers in a Story Increase Credibility

Writing a news story with numbers is a balancing act.  I do a whole lecture on writing with numbers, so important is the topic.  Do you go for precision?  Or do you instead rely on broader terms, like "most" or "half" or some similar shorthand? 

For most pros the answer is somewhere in the middle.  Lead with the summary words for readability and then follow with the precise numbers.  An experiment reported in the latest Newspaper Research Journal looks at words versus numbers and what it means for perceived credibility of the news stories.  The result?  Hardly surprising.  Using numbers instead of broad terms does indeed increase the perceived credibility of the various articles.

For most pros this is not an either-or choice.  You might lede by saying the majority of Americans think this way or four-out-of-five Americans think that way and then you'd come back, fairly early on, with specific numbers.  But in these Twitter times, when news can be condensed to 140 characters, then numbers can improve credibility.  And probably cost fewer characters.

Study cited:  Koetsenruijter, A. W. M. (2011).  Using numbers in news increases story credibility.  Newspaper Research Journal, 32, 74-82.

2 comments:

Willem Koetsenruijter said...

Hi Mr. Hollander,
Thanks for quoting my story. Another point that is made in the study is the so called number paradox: news consumers do not like numbers, do not understand them and do not remember them. While journalists load their messages with numbers. That makes the use of numbers a pure rhetorical act.
Greetings, Willem Koetsenruijter

Hollander said...

Thanks for the comment. I like the idea of a "number paradox" and now that you've reminded me of the point, I'm going to shamelessly steal it for my Fall reporting lectures. Good stuff.