Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wordsmiths with calculators

This just in from the ACES job list:

The ideal candidates are nitpickers who can see the big picture, grammarians who know the rules (and when to break them), wordsmiths who can operate a calculator, precisionists who can write a clever headline.

Which brings to mind this (1A Thursday):

The recently released results from the 2005 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, show that the percentage of people living below the poverty level in Boone County is more than 6 percent higher, at 19.7, than in the rest of the state, where it is 13.3 percent.

First things first: The difference isn't "more than 6 percent," it's more than 48 percent. This one shows up on innumerable J4400 quizzes because -- exactly as advertised -- the distinction between "percent" and "percentage point" is going to try to sneak into the paper sometime in your first few weeks on the desk.

Subtract starting point from second number (19.7-13.3). Divide result by starting point (6.4/13.3=0.4812). Move decimal accordingly. Try it the other way to find out how much lower the statewide rate is: 13.3-19.7=-6.4. Divide by 19.7: -0.3249. The state rate is about 32 percent lower than the county's. Note that your eyeball-derived initial estimates agree: "About half" and "about a third."

Next: Why is the relevant information buried under two layers of attribution? Attribution ought to go first if we have some doubt about the data's provenance, say, or in a campaign lede that needs to make clear that a candidate is introducing or rebutting some particular concept. With no such case applying, put the news first:

The percentage of people living below the poverty line in Boone County in 2005 was almost 50 percent higher than the statewide level, newly released Census Bureau figures show.

Yes, there's a rule that says you don't go around rewriting ledes for the pure heck of it. The flip side of that rule is that when a lede needs help, somebody needs to step in. Be a wordsmith. Use your calculator.

While we're here: Yes, three "That's what ..." ledes in a semester is at least two too many. College-age women are "women," not "girls," even if they're on the Girls of MU calendar. And do the people in the centerpiece photos have anything to do with PANHANDLING?

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