Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fudging questions

More on surveys: As part of a story you're covering on some environmental issue, say logging, you're asked to guage local public opinion. To do that, you need to prepare a survey of a select population. (Let's assume you have access to the names and addresses or e-mails of a random sample of that population, obtained from a list broker.) So you set out to formulate the questions.

Be careful: the questions have to be as neutral as possible, a very difficult task, especially in light of the politically charged atmosphere surrounding all environmental issues. Indeed, many fund raising organizations, on all sides of an issue, often send out "questionnaires" that ask highly loaded questions. They appear to be neutral, but are anything but.

For example, a pro-logging group might include in such a survey a question that asks: "Did you know that trees are a self-renewing energy resource?" What they do not explain is that it takes years and years for a woodland to renew the trees that have been logged, especially in cases of clear-cutting. And that, in the interim, logging can cause flooding and other ecological disasters. Or they might ask, "Do you think trees, which are self-regenerating, should take precedence over the right of people to work their way out of poverty?" Which assumes--tugging at the heart-strings--that logging is the only way for the population in question to make a living.

On the other side, an anti-logging group might ask, "Which of the following is more important: preserving our environment, or allowing giant lumber companies to reap huge profits while destroying our woodlands?" The bias here is obvious: all logging is bad. What they don't say is that some logging, done carefully, has been found to be ecologically beneficial, by allowing for new tree growth. And some lands, placed off-limits to logging, suddenly become susceptible to even more environmentally destructive developments, such as strip malls.

Regardless of your own position on an issue, as a journalist you need to formulate your questions to reflect as much disinterest as possible. Only then will you be able to tabulate answers that are statistically meaningful, and thereby generate a story that is honest. You might ask, for example:

"Loggers argue that trees are a renewable resource. Environmentalists argue that logging is overly destructive of the eco-system. Which of the two positions most accurately reflects your views?"

Then give options:
A) The loggers' position
B) The environmentalists' position
C) Both have equally valid points
D) Not sure

You're on the way to generating public opinion statistics that are not only valid, but that give you an exclusive.

Monday, September 14, 2009


You're doing a story on public reaction to some local policy initiative, say a new park planned for the neighborhood. Normally, you go out and interview a few people, ask their views, and compile it into a story. But this time you want to get a more representative sample of public opinion than the views expressed by a few passersby. You do a Web or library search, and discover, alas, that no surveys have been done on this particular issue (call it the Park issue).

That means you have to do your own survey. But you don't have a background in statistics or market research. And you were never really good in those subjects anyway. No problem; it's a local story, so no need to hire a professional polling firm.

Your company allows you to buy, from a list broker, a list of randomly selected neighborhoood people, with their postal or e-mail addresses. (The random selection just means that the list is statistically representative of the community, so you're in good shape.) Your task now is to formulate the written questions. This is the most important part of your research.

Here's the wrong way to write it: "Do you support or oppose the new park planned for this neighborhood?"

Here's the right way: "Please indicate your position on the new park planned for this neighborhood:"

1) I support the park
2) I oppose the park
3) I'm not sure

Here's the wrong way for the next question: "Why do you support or oppose it?" Or: "Why aren't you sure?"

Here's the right way:
"If you support the park, please indicate why. Select as many reasons as apply:"

1) A park adds a much needed open-air resource to our congested neighborhood.
2) We need a safe place for children to play.
3) [Reason 3]
4) [Reason 4, etc.]
5) Other (explain): ______________________________

"If you oppose the park, please indicate why. Select as many reasons as apply:"
1) The park will raises taxes, which we cannot afford.
2) The park will require destroying our already small supply of affordable housing.
3) [Reason 3]
4) [Reason 4, etc.]
5) Other (explain): ______________________________

For those who are not sure, you can call or interview some of them later to discuss their hesitation.

Of course, there are other things to consider in conducting a survey. But the important point here is that written questions, unlike verbal questions, must be very tightly forumulated, with multiple choice options given to the respondents. That's what makes it possible to tabulate. It's what enables you to quantify public opinion: "X percent opposes the park, Y percent supports the park, Z percent are not sure."

And after you get the statistics, you can go back to interview some respondents to elaborate on their views.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Percents, perhaps

This may seem hard to believe, but I have often had to explain to journalists, both seasoned and newcomers, how to compute a simple percent change between one number and another. I'm talking eighth or ninth grade math here. Blame for this ignorance can be shared by many: our education system, the explosion of calculators, the computer revolution, whatever. Anyway, the math is simple: You divide the later figure by the earlier figure and subtract 1. But you don't need to remember that. Just follow these few steps, using Excel or any other good spreadsheet.

First, of course, get the numbers. Say a small nonprofit organization issues a statement that it has taken in $354,600 in donations in 2009, versus $329,089 the year before. By what percent has the organization increased its fundraising?

Open the spreadsheet. In the first "cell," that is, A1, type in the year "2009."
1) Tab over to the second cell, or B1. Type in the year "2008."
2) Tab over to C1. Type in "Percent change."
3) Now tab back to A2 (which is just under A1). Type in $354,600.
4) Tab over to B2. Type in $329,089.

5) Now tab over to C2. Here's where the computing starts: In C2, type this formula: =A2/B2-1.
6) You get 077522. That doesn't look like a percent, but it is. It's 7.8 percent. You can see that yourself by putting a decimal point after the 07. But here's an easier way (well, a more computer-savvy way):

7) Select the C2 cell, and search the formatting bar for the percent (%) sign. Click it. You'll see the C2 cell change to 8%. That's your answer, rounded. The organization increased its fundraising revenue by around 8 percent.
8) If you want a more precise figure, click on the "Increase decimal" icon on the formatting bar(near the % icon). That will change the 8% to 7.8%. Done.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The importance of imports (and exports)

You may think that enough has been written about the relationship between the housing bust and our current Great Recession to render the issue over and out, but your editor insists that the subject is of lasting interest. S/he assigns you to come up with a new angle on it, and this time, you'll need to back up your quotes and statements with some hard statistical data--that you have to dig up yourself!


You can do it. The main source for this type of information is the U.S. Commerce Department, which has a treasure trove of data on almost every conceivable economic issue. The problem is, its websites are often confounding even to the most savvy users. Still, you'll need to check it out.

The story angle you come up with is this: Given the housing bust cum recession, what's happening with imports of home products, like furniture? Most furniture, like so many other things these days, is imported. So,then, are imports of, say, upholstery, up or down? And by how much?

Go to the Commerce Department site that will lead you to the data.

Don't freak over the zillion items you see on the page. Just click on the following, in order:
1) Country/Product Trade Data.
2) NAICS web application.*
3) In the "Select 3-digit NAICS" search box, hit the down arrow and search for "furniture and fixtures." Click on that.
4) Then click "Go." (This is a must; lots of users forget this step.)
5) In the search box that says "Select 6-digit NAICS," click on the down arrow, and look for upholstered household furniture. Click on that.
6) Then click "Go."
7) In the date box, select the month and year you want, which as of this writing is June 2009. (The most current month is the default, so you may leave it as is.)
8) Along the first line, which says "World," look for "Consumption Imports." Under that, look for "Customs Value Basis."

Voila! Here's your data: It shows that the U.S., in June 2009, imported $14,624,000 worth of upholstery.

So what you do with that figure? Compare it with June 2008 (go back up and set the date to June 2008). Click "Go." And look: a year ago during the same month, we imported $223,894,000 worth of upholstery.

Now you have your story: thanks most likely to the recession and housing slump, imports of upholstery plummeted over the year! It makes sense: People who don't buy new houses don't need to furnish them. So importers cut back. All that's left for you to do is embroider your story with quotes and comments.
*NAICS, if you care, stands for North American Industry Classification System.