Article on climate-change poll shifts raw figures into simpler terms

This news story in the U.S. version of The Guardian shows the author Oliver Milman’s wise decisions to explain numerical differences in easy to understand relationships. This is advice we’re gaining also from Working with Words.

Since we’re going to focus this week on polling and the use of data in our reporting, I chose this story in my first analysis here. The Guardian calls itself a “lead partner” in a consortium of 250 news groups aiming to intensify coverage of climate change.

We can see the author’s handiwork in the lede. I’ve added bold type to highlight terms that turn numbers into relationships:

Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.”

Immediately the story transposes a percentage into words. The exact figure is 64 percent in the CBS poll. But to help readers get a quick picture, the story opts for the simpler relationship: ‘two-thirds’ of those in the sample. I would have added a word: Almost two-thirds. Three percentage points (from 64 to 67) is nothing to overlook. The change would have improved precision at the cost of a single word. That’s worth it.

At times, the story mixes words and numbers, such as in the fourth paragraph, which ties back to a point in the lede:

More than half of polled Americans said they wanted the climate crisis to be confronted right away, with smaller groups happy to wait a few more years and just 18% rejecting any need to act.”

There is that majority again. I could live without the use of ‘just’ to cue how to understand the value of 18 percent. I’d rather allow the readers to decide if 18 percent is not so much. We don’t need to coach them.

The accompanying graphs enrich the story. The color jumps and almost takes over the page. You may notice that Margaret Klein Salamon of the Climate Mobilization Project is named in full and introduced twice — once near the top of the story and again in the second-to-last graph. We normally don’t ID people or give their full names twice in a story. Repeating her full name was probably an oversight, but we sometimes do remind readers of a source’s title when references to them are far apart.

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