May 2, 2016

It’s so tempting to round off numbers and present your audience with pretty 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:

Tip 1

AP style says not to use more than two decimal places in text unless there are “special circumstances.” Special circumstances specifically identified by AP include batting averages and blood alcohol level, which use three decimal places.

Tip 2

If you need to round a number, round:

  • Up if the last digit is 5 or higher
  • Down if the last digit is 1-4

Tip 3

It’s often OK to round very large numbers, for example in city, state or federal budgets, to 3 or 4 significant digits:

A city budget of $953,786 might be rounded to $954,000 (3 significant digits) or even $950,000 (2 significant digits).

But use good judgment. If your number is 1,697,355, it’s probably OK to round to 1.7 million. But if you round a city budget of $1,264,312 to $1.3 million, you’ve just increased spending on by more than $35,000. For most of your audience, that’s serious money. You are probably better to simplify that budget of $1,264,312 to two decimal places: $1.26 million.

Check with your media organization’s guidelines on rounding large numbers.

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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