To get at the story behind the story, do the numbers

Public Editor

February 18, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Several recent front-page Sun articles offered readers a look at the regional real estate scene: Baltimore City's downtown development, the business of the convention center and regional housing sales. All featured an array of statistics. The good news for readers is that Sun reporters sifted through the data and used the statistics to enhance readers' understanding of the local market.

If the articles invariably offered readers a mixed view of the current economic situation, it was no fault of the reporters - who did a good job of deciphering the data. Journalists are traditionally more comfortable with words than with numbers, but the ability to understand and interpret data is more than ever essential for excellent journalism.

Statistics can be deceptive, and getting reliable numbers and reading them correctly takes unique skills and a relentless questioning style. For Sun reporters Jamie Smith Hopkins ("For downtown, a thriving 2006," Feb. 8), Sumathi Reddy ("Convention bookings decline," Feb. 10) and June Arney ("Sales of homes in region on the rise," Feb. 10), being able to master statistics has proved essential.

Arney demonstrated her skill at evaluating numbers in the recent series of articles she and fellow Sun reporter Fred Schulte wrote the abuse of ground rents in the Baltimore region.

Business reporter Hopkins said: "I write a lot of numbers stories. I love data. The phrase `lies, damned lies and statistics' is the best warning to be careful: Understand who's compiling the information, how they're doing it and where it might be inaccurate or incomplete. I do my own numbers-crunching, too, and take special care in those cases because there's more room for mistakes."

The basis for Hopkins' article was a routine 2006 report from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore on business activity downtown. Because the report showed no job gains in 2006, unlike 2005, the group indicated that its findings were not terribly interesting. But when Hopkins began interviewing officials and examining the report's figures more closely, a new angle emerged: It became apparent that the monetary value of the new development projects themselves was higher than at any time since the 1990s.

"It's a good reminder that reports sometimes are more interesting than the authors think," Hopkins said later. "And once I really starting asking questions, I realized I was onto a good story."

Hopkins hit officials with a number of questions: "What does `under construction' mean - building permits pulled? Site development work under way?" "Is the 3 percent margin error just for jobs, or for all figures?" "Is the completed construction number [$1.86 billion for 2006] the highest since you started the reports?" "What about the effect on the close-in neighborhoods?"

By the time it was written and edited, Hopkins' story was, in my view, worthy of its spot at the top of Page One.

Reader Raymond Brogans said: "This was a really solid article that gave a well-rounded view of what's going on downtown. The projects and their dollar value also have a positive psychological effect for those who live and work in Baltimore."

The Feb. 10 article about the current and projected decline in bookings at the downtown convention center was based on the most recent statistics compiled by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. But because the Hilton hotel adjacent to the convention center, which is scheduled to open in 2008, was financed by the city, the numbers in this article call into question the wisdom of that financial decision.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, a current mayoral candidate who opposed the city's 2003 hotel financing plan, and Councilman James B. Kraft expressed disappointment at what the articles' statistics showed. "The numbers were down, and this is not a good sign," Kraft told reporter Reddy. "I hope it's not a trend."

The Feb. 10 housing article used current statistics to show that January was the first month in the past 16 months to show growth - which reporter Arney noted is a good sign for the real estate market ahead of the important spring selling season. The numbers showed that sales in all the Baltimore-area jurisdictions increased except for Baltimore City. The article also was correctly tempered with words of caution from experts that these numbers do not yet prove that the housing slump is over.

In my view, these three articles succeeded in using statistics to give readers useful information on the scale of downtown development, the amount of convention business and the pace of home sales. Together they told readers something important about our region and where it is headed.

The key is for reporters to consistently question whether the numbers are really good indicators of trends, to put them into context and to use them clearly.

Said Smith Hopkins: "Too may numbers can be worse than too few."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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