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Using Numbers

other topics under BASICS: Avoiding "Cop Talk", Broadcast Sentence-Structure, Charges & Allegations, Leads & Teases, Rewriting Copy

One of the catch-phrases in teaching broadcast newswriting is that scripts should be "just like speaking" -- in other words, you should write the words and phrases you would use if you were talking to a friend. This is not quite correct, and it is especially not the case when it comes to numbers.

Not exactly like speaking

Take ages, for example. Ages in broadcast scripts are given as adjectival phrases placed in front of the person's name or other identifying feature, such as "52-year-old Michelle Obama," or "the 52-year-old First Lady." This type of construction is not, of course, conversational. The purpose for it is to make the use of numbers in scripts as clear as possible to our listeners.

This same desire for clarity should govern other appearances of numbers in our stories, such as in the following script on economic data:

Listen to this script!

This story is economic -- so to speak -- in its use of numbers. Only two numbers are given, the percentages of increase for the months of July and August. Listeners aren't faced with statistical overload, and the script ends with expert explanation of these numbers' significance.

Two digits only

This story also follows the "two digits only" rule of newswriting: every number must be reduced to two significant digits. This involves rounding the numbers so that they don't end up taxing the short-term memories of listeners. For example, "six point eight three" becomes "six point eight," and "527" becomes "roughly 530." In addition, the descriptive words "half" and "quarter" are generally preferable to "point five" and "point two five."

Here's a story that fails to follow the "two digits" rule:

This script is quite bad in its use of numbers, which are too large and appear too often. A better approach is to simplify and follow the "two digits rule":

Listen to this script!

Keeping track of numbers is a difficult task even for the most attentive of listeners. If your station broadcasts lottery results, you may already have discovered that the newsroom telephone rings immediately after the numbers have been read on the air, and on the other end of the line is a listener who became confused or was unable to remember the lottery numbers by the time he or she found paper and pencil to write them down. Our purpose as journalists is to impart information in a helpful manner. Being judicious in the use of numbers should allow listeners a clearer understanding of the events affecting their lives.

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