June 20, 2016

It’s so tempting to round off numbers and present your audience with clear, whole numbers rather than cluttering up the text with decimal points and a string of digits. Sometimes rounding a number up (or down) is just fine. But sometimes it creates an inaccurate picture. How can an ethical journalist tell the difference?

Here are some guidelines:

  • Percents often can be rounded to either whole numbers or one decimal point, but only if this will not harm the accuracy of what you are reporting. For example, in a poll with a margin of error of 2 percent, a difference in a fraction of a percent is meaningless and the extra numbers will only confuse readers.
  • For smaller numbers, use common sense. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “About four to six people are paid …” With numbers that small, you can be more precise. If you mean a range (between four and six people) but the exact number varies — then say so.
  • If you round off numbers, say so. Use “about,” “nearly” or “just over” to indicate that your figures are not exact.

Above all, use common sense, and make sure that the values of accuracy and transparency are maintained.

Taken from Numeracy Primer: How to Write About Numbers, a self-directed course by Pam Hogle at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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