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How to Tell a Story with Statistics
March 21, 2006
Maia Szalavitz

It’s rare that we see an article that uses statistics and research well, putting them in context to give readers a sense not just of the latest study, but of a body of literature that has important implications for society. The New York Times did this yesterday in a front page story headlined, “Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn.”

The article summarized the findings:

The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20’s were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.
Then, it used anecdotes to put a human face on them and included numbers, not just percentages, to give a sense of the huge scope of the problem. It also included larger analysis of the trends and possible causes for them. This is the kind of reporting that helps both the public and policy makers understand a complex problem: it is based on data, uses anecdote to illustrate that research rather than trying to find research to illustrate a pet anecdote; and makes a complex issue vivid and compelling.