Stats Sweep: Numbers in Headlines

A deep dive into recent coverage of the Consumer Price Index reveals things to do and not do when reporting on indicator statistics provided by public agencies.

by Elizabeth AttawayJena Barchas-LichtensteinJohn VoiklisKate Flinner
Aug 26, 2021

As part of our Meaningful Math research, we’ve thought a lot about the best ways to represent data in news reports, and what audiences understand when they see these representations and visualizations. Along the way, we’ve seen several examples of data reporting that we think could be clearer. With Stats Sweeps, we analyze real-life examples of stats reporting from the news, and how to improve them.

In this article, we provide examples of headlines on the release of July Consumer Price Index data that appeared in five different news sources on August 11, 2021. We are grateful to Anand Sarwate for calling our attention to this issue. In this article, we recommend a different way to report on the same data and offer a shortlist of things to do -- and not do -- when reporting on this kind of indicator.

These headlines report on the same data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Headline 1

Consumer prices rise 5.4% annually in July
Prices rose 0.5% in July

Headline 2

Prices rise 5.4 percent in July over last year as the economy claws back from pandemic depths
The Fed and White House predict prices will continue to climb as consumer demand surges before supply chains can catch up

Note - The archived version of this article is behind a paywall. If you would like a PDF of the article, contact Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein at JenaBL@knology.org.

Headline 3

Consumer Prices Keep Climbing as Fed and White House Await a Cool-Down
A key inflation gauge again climbed 5.4 percent in July from a year earlier. Price gains are expected to moderate — the question is by how much and how quickly.

Headline 4

US consumer prices rose in July but at slower pace
Prices for U.S. consumers rose last month but at the slowest pace since February, a sign that Americans may gain some relief after four months of sharp increases that have imposed a financial burden on the nation’s households.

Headline 5

Inflation moderated in July but prices are still rising in America
Higher prices have been the pandemic recovery's collateral damage. Even though Washington insists higher inflation may just be temporary, America's prices keep rising — albeit at a slightly slower pace.

Headline 6

Inflation Stayed High in July as Economy Rebounded
Consumer prices rose 5.4% from a year earlier, the same annual rate as in June, but the monthly pace slowed

Do This, Not This

First, consider what indicators are.

Indicators are statistics that attempt to summarize and quantify some aspect of society, like unemployment, homelessness, or market performance. Because indicators are intended to capture complex phenomena, they are based on multiple measurements. Indicators are primarily useful because they provide a standard way of measuring over time -- as a result, the meaning is in the changes across measurements, and not in a single indicator statistic. For more on indicators, see Gal and Ograjenšek (2017).

These recommendations are intended for outlets with a general audience. Specialist and technical publications may be able to assume greater familiarity.

A. Numbers vs Words

DO THIS – Know when numbers are needed and when words are sufficient, especially in headlines. When a statistic needs to be contextualized, save it for the body of the article, like Headlines 4 and 5.
NOT THIS – Avoid giving a specific number without the context needed for a reader to reason about it. Many readers will not be familiar with the Consumer Price Index, so the 5.4% increase is hard to interpret within a headline or subhead (see Headlines 1 and 2).
WHY – Numbers can tell a story, but not without context. Someone unfamiliar with the Consumer Price Index will not know whether a 5.4% increase in one year is typical, high, or low. Nor will they know if this increase means that most prices are now comparable to pre-pandemic levels or higher. The body of each story puts the 5.4% number into context -- but not everyone who reads an alert or headline will read the story.

B. Specific Metrics

DO THIS – If you highlight a number, be specific about what that number refers to. All six stories discuss the change in the Consumer Price Index between July 2020 and July 2021. The subhead in Headline 3 described the CPI as “a key inflation gauge,” which helps to clarify what the Consumer Price Index is and that it is one way to measure inflation but not the only one.
NOT THIS – Avoid using general descriptors, such as "prices" or "the economy,” to refer to a specific metric like the Consumer Price Index or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
WHY – Statistics can be helpful to describe consumer prices, unemployment, and other aspects of society - but no single indicator or number can capture everything about "prices" or "the economy." Be careful not to conflate the measurement with the complex phenomenon it attempts to represent.

However, these are all headlines, and it isn't reasonable to provide a description of the Consumer Price Index in such a small space, which leads us to…

C. Competing Numbers

DO THIS – Present sufficient context to explain multiple numbers.
NOT THIS – Avoid using multiple numbers within a headline and subhead unless you have the space to fully explain what each can tell you and why both are needed. It is hard for readers who aren’t intimately familiar with economic data to understand the difference between the two increases described in the headline and subhead in Headline 1.
WHY – Multiple indicators give a fuller understanding of the picture, but they should be clearly explained and probably not in the headline or subhead. To use Headline 1 as an example, the first number reflects longer-term inflation, while the second number tells you if inflation is speeding up or slowing down. Specifically, the July 2021 Consumer Price index was 5.4% higher than the July 2020 Consumer Price index. Meanwhile, it was 0.5% higher than the June 2021 Consumer Price Index, which in turn was 0.9% higher than the May 2021 Consumer Price Index (see note). Other headlines referred to both types of changes as “in July.”

Note - after adjusting for seasonality, which means it takes into account changes in consumer prices that occur over the course of a typical year (for instance, gas prices are higher in summer).

Case in point: Our attempt to briefly and simply explain the statistics mentioned by Headline 1 required four sentences and a footnote. That’s why Headlines 4 and 5 work better because they focus on the meaning of the changes instead of the statistics. Headline 6 is the only example that highlights the difference between annual and monthly changes.

D. Interpretation

DO THIS – Report on how to interpret numbers and what those numbers mean.
NOT THIS – Avoid treating the numbers as a story in and of themselves.
WHY – Numbers, especially official statistics, are often seen as more objective and “true” than other types of data. It’s important to remember – and to remind audiences – that behind every number is a series of human choices (D’Ignazio & Klein, 2020; Barchas-Lichtenstein, 2020)

Photo Credit: Devin Spell on Unsplash.

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