February 4, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The Economic Policy Institute says in 33 states, day care for a 1-year-old costs more than in-state college tuition.

The cost of day care in California is a jaw-dropping $16,945, or more than $1,400 per month. EPI says parents pay $8,530 per year in Georgia, $13,802 in Illinois, $12,567 in Wisconsin and $9,324 in Texas. That means in Texas, “Infant care for one child would take up 15.7% of a median Texas family’s income.” Put in other terms, the cost of day care in Texas is two-thirds of a minimum wage worker’s income and half of a typical child care worker’s income.

(Economic Policy Institute)

Sorry journalists, but we have to talk about COVID math

Journalists, we have a denominator problem. There, I said it. It needed to be said.

We have a habit of reporting raw figures without adding any context. We are giving a numerator without a denominator. We are sharing the “what” without also sharing the “so what.”

The Guardian gives us an interesting visual lesson. This data is from New South Wales, Australia, but it could be anywhere, including your county. Imagine that you saw this data, which says that, during the winter, 97 vaccinated seniors had died or were hospitalized in the local intensive care unit, and 31 unvaccinated people were, too.

(The Guardian)

Anti-vaxxers would use such data to say, “See, the vaccines don’t work.” But in fact, more vaccinated people died or got really sick than those who didn’t get vaccinated. That is what happens when you fail to use denominators, the context that makes this data make sense.

Now let’s add denominators. Yes, 97 deaths is a larger figure, but it is out of a universe of 2.7 million people.

(The Guardian)

If you’re a journalist with a tendency to run away from math, you should dive headfirst into this column by epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina. It explains how to stop “numerator thinking” and embrace “denominator thinking.”

Here’s a taste of her thinking about how this shows up in your reporting:

Numerator: Pediatric hospitalizations are increasing. And they are increasing fast. In the figure below, hospitalizations among children aged 0-17 year increased to numbers never seen before, a daily rate of 1.13 new admissions per 100,000 children.

Denominator: When we compare this to other age groups, the number of admissions among 0-17 year-olds continues to be the lowest compared to any other age group. Every age group is increasing in hospital admissions right now.


To me, the lesson is that journalists need to get the facts right and also get the right facts. Accuracy plus context equals truth.

Making sense of today’s jobs report

There are a few things to keep in mind as you look at today’s jobs figures. Axios points out:

The peak of infections occurred in precisely the survey week on which the employment data are based — which meant millions of Americans were home sick, quarantining, or caring for others.

For people who are salaried employees or received paid sick leave, that shouldn’t affect the numbers. But for people who worked no hours and were unpaid during the reference week, that will show up as jobs that evaporated.

The January numbers are also complicated by seasonal workers who sometimes are laid off after the holiday shopping season but, because of labor shortages, may have kept working this year. All and all, the advice seems to be not to get too caught up in the numbers this month but to look for longer-term trends.

Why is it so hard for part-timers to find full-time work? Is there a shortage?

A hiring sign is seen outside of Accurate Personnel office (an employment agency) in Buffalo Grove, Ill., Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

If the national worker shortage has given workers more leverage, it is hard to understand why it is so difficult for part-time workers to land full-time jobs that come with benefits and higher pay. The New York Times found that even while employers plead for workers and try to retain current employees, employers are used to business models that involve part-time workers, and they are not quick to change:

Government data show that in retail businesses, the portion of workers on part-time schedules last year stood about where it was just before the pandemic, and that it increased somewhat in hospitality industries like restaurants and hotels.

In a twice-yearly survey by Daniel Schneider, a Harvard sociologist, and Kristen Harknett, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, one-quarter of workers at large retailers and restaurant chains said they were scheduled 35 hours a week or less and wanted more hours. That was down from about one-third in 2019, but the change was driven by a decline in the number of workers wanting more hours, most likely because of pandemic health risks and work-life conflicts, not because employers were providing more hours.

Even as employers complain of having to scramble to fill vacancies, there is little evidence that service workers are winning any meaningful, long-term gains. While businesses have raised wages, those increases can be easily eroded by inflation, if they haven’t been already. The overall national rate of membership in unions — which can obtain wage increases for workers even absent labor shortages — matched its lowest level on record last year.

By the way, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 2020 data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on the typical number of hours worked per week among full-time employees in 35 mostly affluent nations. In some countries, like Netherlands, the average full-time work week is 29.5 hours or, in Denmark, 32.5 hours.

Parking spot space saver wars during snowstorms

Chairs are placed to mark parking spots for those who shoveled snow off Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Start your understanding of this story with the stipulation that even on a clear day, street-level parking places are gold in big cities. So, when snow rolls in, city folk stake out their parking spots with space savers. The notion is if you do the work clearing a parking space, it should be your space for a few days. NJ.com explains the tradition:

For drivers who live in apartments and in cities without the luxury of off-street parking, one of the more frustrating sights can be looking in the rear view mirror to see another vehicle glide into the parking space you spent so much time laboriously shoveling snow out of.

Technically, that’s the downside of parking on a public street. But in some places there is a strange and parochial custom called “savesies” that drivers and residents use to address that situation.

Washington, D.C., and New York prohibit the practice of reserving on-street parking spaces using objects, Bier said. In those cities, the object is removed and the responsible parties are ticketed, which in New York City has a fine of up to $2,000.

This has become a tradition in Boston, New Jersey and Philadelphia, even though it is not legal in Philly. 10 Boston explored this tradition, which can become contentious if you do not play by the unwritten rules.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News