25 Numbers Journalists Should Know
August 13th, 2006 by JTJ

25 Numbers Journalists Should

few days ago, I asked friends and colleagues on listservs to suggest 25
relatively generic numbers journalists should know in order to be responsible,
effective reporters and editors. 
You sent along the great suggestions included below.  A handful of folks, however,
responded to make two points:

·   It is more important to know where to find pertinent
numbers than it is to know specific numbers, and

·   It is more important to know appropriate
calculations – say, how to compute percent of change – that can be applied to
specific numbers once they are found.

  Yes, points well taken.  But I don’t think any of these
are mutually exclusive. 
Here’s why.

  Any statistical analysis begins with classifying
and counting.  That
process is only relevant if put in some context.  If I tell you that Santa Fe, New
Mexico has about 68,000 people, that number by itself has little meaning in
terms of scale.  Is 68,000
big or small?  How do I
tease some information out of that lonesome statistic?  Ah, but when we can ask how does
it compare to other cities in the state, region or nation meaning and
information start to bubble up?  

  The second analytic step is
estimation.  This is
helpful – perhaps necessary – to have some ballpark figure to help the analyst
determine if his/her calculations are correct or “make sense.”  If the city manager tells a
reporter that the town has been growing by about .5 percent per year since
2000, she could not estimate the amount of growth or its current aggregate
unless she had a baseline number of 68,000. 

So we
think that (a) journalists should always have some relevant – and fairly accurate
– ballpark figures in mind to help with context (Yes, some of these will vary
from beat to beat); (b) journalists should know where and how to find the
historic and current statistics; (c) journalists should know how to do some
fairly elementary arithmetic to tease information out of the data.

  Thanks to all for your

Tom Johnson [12 August 2006]

Distance (in miles/km and time) from your city to

Capital and principal cities of the world

·    Average number of calories consumed per day for
residents of your nation

Annual production (either in area or amount) of the
five largest food

Crops in your nation

·   The amount (and balance) of trade between your nation
and its five

Largest trading partners (bonus: which commodities
contribute most to that trade)

Average annual rainfall in your city
[Wendell Cochran, American University]

Add in racial and ethnic groupings, homeless/housing
character (rent/own, size), language, age, religion, business characteristics,
gross domestic product, largest businesses, largest employers (the latter two
are often not synonymous), macro-crime rates, major political parties, voter
registration and recent political outcomes.

The rate of change is at least as important as the
current or historical raw number, and you need both to provide

The list needs to be adjusted for one's beat(s). It
makes no sense to ask a cops reporter to spew out business numbers without end,
but he damned sure ought to know that murders have increased for four of the
last five years.
[Pierce Presley, Master's Candidate, University of Memphis]


·  Homicide rate        

·  Cost of Living for your city compared to nation

·  Average Wage in your city/state/nation               

·  Average commute time to work (in minutes) compared
to state/nation  

·  Median home price for your city compared to peers
(similar sized cities)  

·  Which industry employs the largest proportion of
your county/state/nation's population? 
(In Indiana, we rank 1st in the nation for manufacturing.  But that's a double edged sword.
In other words, how industry-dependent are you?)

[Carol Rogers, IUPUI, Indianapolis, Indiana]             

Para temas de seguridad: cantidad de policías en
actividad en mi ciudad y cantidad de delitos contra la propiedad por mes o día
(promedio) [Under the category of security: the number of active police in my
city and the daily or monthly average number of property crimes]

Para temas de salud: cantidad de médicos en ejercicio y cantidad de camas
hospitalarias [Health care: the number of practicing doctors and the number of
hospital beds.]

Para temas judiciales: cantidad de causas penales
por juzgado y cantidad de funcionarios judiciales por juzgado [Legal system:
the number of criminal cases by court and the number of employees in the court

Para temas de contaminación ambiental: cantidad de
monóxido de carbono en  el
aire que respiramos para la ciudad en la que vivimos [Environment: the amount
of carbon monoxide in the air in our city]

Para temas de tránsito: cantidad de accidentes de
tránsito por día, cantidad de automóviles circulando por día y de multas
labradas a los infractores por día (promedios) [Transportation: the average
number of traffic accidents per day; the average number of cars on the city
streets and the average number of tickets/fines per day.]

Para temas electorales: Cantidad de votos emitidos
en elecciones pasadas por partido politico [Elections: the number of votes
cast, by political party, in past elections.

[Sandra Crucianelli, journalist and CAR trainer, Bahía Blanca,

Unemployment.  Worldwise
it is something like 1/3 ( if that isn't gun powder I don't know what
[Jenny Quillien, FRIAM,  Santa Fe, New Mexico]

GDP — $13.2 trillion as of the second quarter of
2006, in current dollars (source: )

The U.S. civilian labor force: 151.5 million
Employed: 144.3 million, Unemployed: 7.2 million, Not in the labor force: 77.4
million,  (source: )
It's also useful, of course, to know these figures for your

·    The number of households in the U.S.: 105.5 million,
as of Census 2000 (again, the local number is very useful)

U.S. median household income: $44,473 (three-year
average, 2002-2004) (only 19 of 50 states are above this, by the way) (source:

Largest US corporation, by sales: Exxon Mobil,
$339.4 billion in 2005. Largest by assets: Citicorp, nearly $1.5 trillion.
(Source: Fortune magazine)

Also, a useful math trick is the Rule of 72, a quick
way of calculating how long it will take something to double in size.  That is, if something is growing
at X percent a year, divide X into 72 to get the number of years it will take
to double. So, a city growing at 8 percent a year will double in 9
Byczkowski, Cincinnati Ohio]

·   Per capita water (gallons per day) and energy
consumption (kilowatts per year) in your country and how they rank versus other
countries and global average

Water consumption % by sector: industrial,
agricultural, domestic

Proportion of oil, gas, coal that is imported in
your country

Proportion of imports of all food consumed ($ and

Energy consumed per unit of GDP (kilowatts per $ of
gdp) and comparison

Per cent of GDP spent on defense and national

Crime rate matrix: gender by race/ethnicity by age

Per capita income matrix: gender by race/ethnicity
by age range

Current level of forestation of your country and
what it was 100 years ago.

Geographic size of your land mass of the earth, your country, state, county,

Basic unit conversion from mass to volume: water =
about 64lb per cubic foot

[Jim Rutt, FRIAM Group, Santa Fe, New

I'd suggest
working this question from the perspective of readers/viewers.

·  The price of a bus ticket/monthly pass.

·  The unemployment rate in your country/state/province/city.

·  The cheapest interest rate you can get for a
mortgage in your reporting area and your federal government's overnight
interest rate (the Fed's rate for 
the U.S.; the Bank of Canada's overnight rate here)

·  Your country's trade surplus/deficit

·  The operating surplus or deficit of your national,
regional, and local government.

The debt of your national, regional, and
local  government (and can
you clearly explain the difference between the debt and the deficit)

·   The percentage of eligible voters that actually
exercised their franchise at the last national, regional and local election.
Bonus points if you can say if that percentage is up or down compared to the
previous election!

The price of a litre of milk and a litre of gas in
your area and the national/regional/local average of those goods. (I know you
Americans buy gas by the gallon, but what is it for milk – a quart?)

·   The salary of your top municipal/regional/federal
politician and the salary of the top bureaucrat in each district.

·   An average of mean temperature for your reporting
area yesterday and how hot/cold it was a year ago. Five years ago? Ten years

How much income does a household have to have in
your area to avoid being labeled as “poor”?

·   I've found that, for survival in a newsroom, it's
always a good idea to always know your circulation/viewership now and what it
was a year ago.
[David Akin]

·  Rate of inflation in the local economy.

·  Exchange rate of relevant currencies.

·  Whatever the reference interest rate is

Year-to-date returns of the local equity market's

[Bill Alpert, Sr. Editor, Barron's]

·  Population make-up by race, ethnicity, etc. for your
[Jeff Parrott, Projects reporter, South Bend (Ind.) Tribune]

Here's a couple
of numbers every journalist should know:

·   The phone number to the library

·   The phone number to the help desk at the Census

[Jodi Upton]

·  The circumference of the earth (25,000

The mileage on your car.

[Teresa Meikle, News Researcher, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa

·    A good idea of the normal curve, such that education reporters wouldn't make a
big deal about moving from the 48th to the 53rd percentiles with one year's

A rough idea of converting units (mph to feet per
second once got me a great nugget in a story)

A general breakdown of national race and trends
(more Hispanics than blacks, for the first time, not so many years

A general idea of long-term debt obligations, which has gotten USA Today some
great stories and almost certainly deserves a greater focus by other news


Percentage break-downs based on income and age.

Current rate of home ownership, as well as the rate
5, 10 and 20 years ago.

·    World population: 6.5 billion

Comfortably crowded together= 65 billion square feet
= 2,331 square miles.
[Mark Houser, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review]

NB: “A multiple
choice quiz given before almost every semester’s class for the past couple of
decades.  Very few
students have any conception of the relative sizes of the different
ethnic/racial/religious groups in the American population and typically
over-represent African Americans, Jews, and (more recently), Latinos.”  

· What is the total population of the United States

American Indians comprise what percentage of the
U.S. population?

What percentage of the U.S. population is Asian

What percentage of the U.S. population is
non-Hispanic white?

What percentage of the U.S. population is African

What percentage of the population is Hispanic or

What percentage of the American people is

What percentage of the American people is Roman

In 1860, immediately prior to the Civil War, what percentage of the total
African American population was free?

Which is the most rapidly growing ethnic category in the U.S. today?

·  What percentage of the U.S. population today is

Answers, except for religion, found at
[Prof. Norm Yetman, American Studies and Sociology, Univ. of

Some measure of broadband penetration for the US,
for the most wired countries, and for the area you cover.
[Barbara K. Iverson, Journalism – Columbia College

Numbers that let you explain numbers in ordinary

·   The number of gallons in a typical swimming pool.
(Around 15,000 gallons, give or   take.) 
Very useful to describe oil, toxic waste spills. 100,000 gallons
equals enough oil to fill nearly seven swimming pools.

Another from Doig the Elder — the space occupied by a single person in a loose
crowd, 10 square feet, or so. Good for counting crowds and deflating
overwrought crowd estimates.

·  The number of ball bearings that fit in a box car,
roughly a billion. Good for explaining “parts per billion.” 

·   Numbers that let you make on-the-fly measurements.
U.S. currency is six inches long. So you can measure feet. Your outstretched
arms are roughly equivalent to your height. Figure out your stride so you can
pace off distance. The top of your thumb, from middle joint to end, is roughly
an inch. Index fingernail is roughly a centimeter. 

·   Basic metric conversions: Meter=39 inches. Kilometer= 5/8 mile. Inch = 2.54 (I
think) centimeters. Ounce = 28 grams. (That one is second nature to those of us
who came of age in a certain generation.)

[Neil Reisner, Florida International University]

·   (“Credit for the 10-square-feet-per-person rule goes
to a Berkeley j-school professor in the '60s whose name I'm embarrassed to have
forgotten but who wrote a CJR article in about 1968 on the mechanics of
crowd-counting. I've used it a lot.”)

Two steps of your stride is roughly your height, or
so I learned in Boy Scouts a century ago. And to get a good approximation of
kilometers, multiply miles by 0.6 (or by 6 and then move the decimal place over
one to the left.)

One other useful formula: The sampling error margin
on a poll is pretty close to 1 divided by the square root of the size of the
sample; therefore a random sample of 100 respondents has an error margin of
plus or minus 10 percentage points.
Doig, Arizona State University]

·  The world's population

·   Your nation's population and as a percent of the

Your state/province/district population and as a
percent of your nation

·    Your city's pop. and as a percent of your state/province/district

·   The percent of change for all of the above in the
past 10 years

The current budget of your
nation/state/province/district/city government

The sub-sections of the above budgets for health,
education, public safety, infrastructure and their relative

The world's live birth rates and same for your
nation/state/ province/ district/city 

Average life expectancy for males and females in
your nation/state/ province/district/city

·   Average family size for your

Per capita and per family annual income for your
nation/state/ province/district/city

·   Average years of education for males and females in
the world and your nation/state/province/district/city
[Tom Johnson, IAJ, Santa Fe, New



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