Public Editor

Real number or percentage?

A reader had an interesting question on a story that ran on Page A-1 about Missouri’s gun death rate, which has now overtaken traffic fatalities as the leading nonmedical cause of death in the state.

He pointing specifically to this sentence: “This year, of the 54 traffic fatalities the Highway Patrol had handled as of Sunday, 71 percent of victims had not been belted.”

“Why would the reporter give a percent instead of the actual number?” he asked. “71 percent is actually 38 and 1/3 people.”

He suggested in this case, knowing the numbers would have been preferable. But in other statistics, such as utility rates, for example, percentages may tell the story better.

Is there a standard answer to this question? Not that I know of. However, I spoke to reporter Brian Burnes, who told me percentages are what he usually uses when writing about rates. And I have to say that since this particular story is about how fatality rates have varied over time, I find it more informative than the actual numbers myself.

But this is definitely a case where subjectivity rules. It’s perfectly fair to disagree with the story’s choices.