Percentages, statistics, and more: basic math tips from MTJ

1. The Language of Numbers

Numbers are an essential part of journalism, and any good reporter should be able to understand and express information involving numbers. Becoming numerically literate means breaking down numbers and repackaging them in a palatable way for readers. Below are some ways to make important numerical information useful in your reporting.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

  • Spell out shorter numbers, but use numerals for longer numbers
  • Round off big numbers unless specificity is required
  • Do the math for readers
  • Use analogies or graphics to make numbers easy to interpret
  • Be precise with comparative language

2. Percentages

Percentages are one of the more commonly encountered elements of numerical representation in journalism, but also some of the most difficult to work with. Below are some of the most important formulas and definitions to know when working with percentages.

Percentage increase/decrease

Helpful for stories charting funding, budget, or salaries across multiple years

  • (new figure – old figure) / old figure
  • Convert to percentage by moving decimal two places right

Percentage of a whole

Helpful for providing scale by putting amounts in perspective

  • subgroup / whole group
  • Convert to percentage by moving decimal two places right

Percentage points

Percentage is the part of a whole, percentage points compare two or more percentages

Simple/annual interest

Used to describe interest on money borrowed

  • Money borrowed is called principal, money paid for the use of money is called interest
  • Interest = principal x rate (as decimal) x time (in years)

Compounding interest

Describes interest added to the original principal and subsequent compoundinG

  • Formula below for payments on loans
  • A = monthly payment, P= original loan amount, R= original interest rate, expressed as decimal and divided by 12, N= total number of months
  • A = [P X (1 + R)N X R] / [(1 +R)N – 1]

3. Statistics

Just like percentages, statistics are entirely vital to your job as a journalist. In the right contexts, they can be incredibly useful tools in your storytelling. But first, you must have an understanding of what statistics mean and how to properly contextualize them. Below are some examples of helpful statistical concepts.


Commonly referred to as “average”, helpful in showing general trends

  • Add up all figures and divide by total number of figures


Middle number in a group, not as mathematically valuable as mean

  • Put all figures in an order from lowest to highest, median is the figure in the middle of that order


The number appearing most frequently in a group

When to use mean, median, or mode

  • Mean is most appropriate when figures are all over the place, and average is the best way to establish a reasonable middle
  • Mode is most appropriate when a few outliers would skew an average, and the most commonly repeated number is the best representation of the usual figure
  • Median is most appropriate when one or more outliers would make a mean inaccurate, and mode doesn’t fully express a common example of the figure


Describes the number of scores that fall below the provided score, indicated rank relative to competition

  • Percentile rank = (number of people at or below an individual score) / (number of total people who scored)

Standard Deviation

Common in scientific reports

  • Indicates how much a group of figures varies from the norm
  • Subtract mean from each score, square resulting number for each score, compute the mean for those numbers (that mean is called the variance), find the square root of the variance


Using probability to express likelihood can help reader’s understand potential future events

  • Instances occurred divided by total population
  • Lottery is pure chance

4. Federal Statistics

The federal government provides a number of statistics to the general public, sharing information covering the general economic welfare of the nation. These figures, when properly interpreted, can bear value for journalists trying to inform themselves and the public about the state of the nation’s economy and how it will affect people. Below are some common federal statistics, what they mean, and how to use them.


A helpful barometer to compare employment of the national workforce across different years and eras

  • Monthly number indicating the amount of the labor force (people over the age of 16 who have a job or have looked for one in the past four weeks, except unemployed people not actively seeking work) that is employed (having done some work for pay in the week before the survey)
  • Unemployment rate = (unemployed / labor force) x 100

Inflation and Consumer Price Index (CPI)

Useful for showing readers the fluctuating value of their money and the cost of the goods they buy

  • U.S. inflation is measured by the CPI, showing the amount of inflation for eight major product groups through a survey of 30,000 individuals
  • Monthly inflation rate = (Current CPI – Prior Month CPI) / Prior Month CPI x 100

Adjusting for Inflation

A way to express historical dollar values with their their modern worth equivalent

  • A = Target year value in dollars, B = Starting year value in dollars, AC = Target year CPI, BC = starting year CPI
  • A = (B/BC) x AC

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Increasing GDP indicates a healthy economy, decreasing GDP indicates a worsening economy that may be in a recession. The change in GDP is a more valuable statistic than the level of the GDP itself

  • C = consumer spending on goods and services, I = investment spending, G = government spending, NX = net exports (exports minus imports)
  • GDP = C + I + G + NX

Trade Balance

The difference between goods and services exported to a foreign country versus those imported. Limited use, but relevant when talking international trade

  • TB = Exports – imports

Students flood Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street following UNC’s National Championship victory

by Alex Hager

Redemption. That was the word on everyone’s lips as thousands of people clad in Carolina blue swarmed Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on Monday night.

After falling in the final seconds of last year’s NCAA National Championship basketball game, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill beat Gonzaga in Glendale, Ariz., and fans back on campus celebrated in grand fashion.

In one of UNC’s most famous athletic traditions, throngs of Carolina faithful formed a sea of celebration on the corner of Franklin Street and Columbia Street in downtown Chapel Hill. An estimated 55,000 people took to the streets in the early hours of Tuesday morning, according to the Town of Chapel Hill. Many of the revelers were students who poured out of the neighborhood’s iconic bars, while others streamed in from dorms across campus and the school’s official watch party at the Dean Smith Center.

The Tar Heels sealed their victory shortly before midnight, but the lateness of the hour didn’t seem to dampen the festivities, which only began to dissipate around 1 a.m.

Chants and music filled the air and dancing ensued in the streets, displaying widespread elation following UNC’s first national title since 2009. Inside the densely-packed crowd, fans encircled bonfires in the street, burning newspaper, shoes and even sofas in celebration. Others climbed light and electricity poles on street corners, perilously suspended dozens of feet above the street.

Heavy police presence in the area kept the celebrations safe, as uniformed officers guarded light poles, watched the scene from above, and stood sentry throughout the crowd. The town of Chapel Hill reported only seven injuries, including four burn-related injuries.

Phoenix sweeps JMU with complete game shutout from freshman Brnovich

by Alex Hager

The Elon University baseball team defeated James Madison University (JMU) with a score of 3-0 on Sunday afternoon at April 2 Latham Park, sweeping the Dukes in their three-game series and extending a winning streak to six.

Although the Phoenix won the first two games of the series in high-scoring affairs, Sunday’s game was decidedly a pitching duel. Elon freshman pitcher Kyle Brnovich threw a complete game shutout, only giving up two hits through his nine scoreless frames.

Brnovich carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning when JMU’s Jack Hamner singled to left, breaking up the bid. He struck out six JMU batters through his outing’s 122 pitches. The afternoon’s win moved his record to 2-2 on the season.

Even after losing the no-hit bid, Brnovich stayed in the game and didn’t appear to lose any of his early lusters.

“For me, it was just go out there and let them put the ball in play,” Brnovich said. “It’s going to take a lot for them to get a run. I’ve got a great eight guys behind me. I was very thankful they got it going out there. There was never a time in my mind I was thinking of coming out.”

Both teams’ bats were stagnant throughout the game’s early innings, with the first run of the game coming in the seventh, when sophomore shortstop Ryne Ogren hit a solo home run over on a line shot to left field, putting the Phoenix on the board. Elon added two more runs in the eighth, on hits from senior right fielder Kyle Jackson and freshman left fielder Tyler Stanley.

Just as Brnovich frustrated JMU batters, the Dukes had a weapon of their own on the mound. JMU junior Josh Silvestri put together six innings, only giving up one hit while striking out three. JMU’s loss was credited to senior Michael Evans, who gave up all three runs in the eighth on just 24 pitches.

Although Elon struggled on offense, Brnovich’s strong pitching gave the Phoenix reason to be hopeful.

“It’s really awesome to see that kid throw,” Ogren said of Brnovich’s breakout performance. “He’s a freshman, but he’s mature. He’s like a senior on the mound.”

The Phoenix have not lost since March 24 when they fell to Northeastern University at home. That loss was their only defeat in conference play, giving the Phoenix a 5-1 record in the Colonial Athletic Association.

“Winning is fun,” said head coach Mike Kennedy. “When you’re stringing the together, the energy and the confidence is at an all-time high right now. But this game will humble you real quick, and that’s the message we try to share with our guys and keep them on task.”

Elon will try to improve their overall record of 15-13 in its next two games, as the team kicks off a two-day home-and-away series against Wake Forest University. The first game of the series is on Tuesday April 4 at 6 p.m. in Winston-Salem.

Al Drago visits campus to talk about journey from Pendulum to White House

Al Drago, a 2015 Elon alumnus and photographer for the New York Times, visited campus on Friday. He talked with Janna Anderson’s Reporting for the Public Good class, a class he took himself in 2015.

Drago shared stories from his time as a photojournalist for the Elon Pendulum and how he progressed from a student journalist to a White House photographer through freelancing and internships, emphasizing the value of hard, tireless work.

“I ferociously worked, said Drago. “I knew what I wanted, and I worked nonstop. I dedicated everything I did to advancing myself professionally.”

During his time at Elon, Drago freelanced across North Carolina and occasionally made trips across state lines while also taking classes. One summer, he interned from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., worked from midnight to 5 a.m., and found sleep in the mornings.

“Every holiday, you’re going to be working,” said Drago. “You’re going to be loving it and you’re going to be embracing it.”

Although his job at the New York Times has him flying on Air Force One with the White House press pool, Drago harkened back to what he learned on classes at Elon. While sharing his “top eight tips”, he noted that he still uses things he learned in Media Writing and COM100 in his day-to-day work.

While much of his talk focused on hard work and personal sacrifice, Drago also said that he still makes time for fun, even on the job, adding that his personal and professional brand emphasizes fun and energy.

More information about Drago can be found on his website or Twitter.

Convocation speaker Daniel Gilbert talks science of happiness

Video and words by Alex Hager, photos by Caroline Brehman

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and bestselling author, delivered Elon University’s Spring Convocation lecture on Thursday afternoon in Alumni Gym. Gilbert is known for his TED Talk “The Science of Happiness” and his award-winning book “Stumbling on Happiness.”

In his talk, Gilbert walked the audience through his studies, breaking down how marriage, money and children effect human happiness. He emphasized that the study of happiness is highly scientific, something he expanded on by sharing a number of graphs mapping statistics he has found through his research.

“Most of us learn about what will make us happy from our parents, from our society, from bartenders and motivational speakers, ministers and all the people around us who have theories about happiness and are well-meaning and will share those theories with us,” Gilbert said in an interview shortly before his lecture. “That’s our map for finding happiness, and yet you wouldn’t ask any of these people things like ‘how do cells divide’, ‘what makes a white dwarf star explode’, those we think of as scientific facts. Well, guess what? What makes people happy is also a scientific fact.”

Sharing his scientific study of happiness, Gilbert revealed that marriage makes people happier, but having children overwhelmingly leads to a decrease in happiness. While the lecture focused largely on factors pertaining to adult life, Gilbert also shared a bit of advice for students.

“This is not four years that you spend doing something unusual,” Gilbert said. “This is the blueprint for your life. You went to classes and you read books and talked about them with people. Don’t ever stop reading books and talking to people about them. Don’t stop going to an interesting speaker, or even an uninteresting one, and listening to their lecture. These lifelong habits of learning will keep you vital and keep you young, as well as make you happy.”

Gilbert spent Thursday afternoon meeting with students around campus, later sharing positive impressions of his interactions with members of the Elon community.

“What struck me in the few hours I’ve been here is the people,” Gilbert said. “They’re warm, welcoming and they’re intensely curious. I visit a lot of universities where students are kind of shy, and if they do speak up they don’t have much interesting to say. That sure hasn’t been the case here with the class I’ve visited and the lunch I’ve had. People are full of great and interesting questions that really make me think.”

Gilbert might be best known for his appearances in television commercials for Prudential Financial, in which he talked with Americans about saving and financial planning. In addition, he has contributed to Time magazine, The New York Times and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

More information about Gilbert and his work can be found on his website.

LIVE BLOG: Daniel Gilbert delivers Elon Spring Convocation

daniel_todd_gilbertDaniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and bestselling author, is delivering Elon University’s Spring Convocation lecture in Alumni Gym. Gilbert is known for his TED Talk “The Science of Happiness”
 and his award-winning book “Stumbling on Happiness”. Gilbert’s TED Talk is one of the 15 most viewed of all time, and his book spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. Gilbert might be best known for his appearances in television commercials for Prudential Financial, in which he talked with Americans about saving and financial planning.

Updates from the lecture will appear below, with the most recent information at the top.

FIN: Lambert leaves the stage and the crowds flow out of Alumni. Thanks for following along.

4:31 p.m. Leo Lambert returns to the podium and recognizes the class of 2017 and groups of academic achievers.

4:29 p.m. Gilbert closes his lecture to an applause from the crowd.

4:28 p.m. “I came here to tell you about happiness because happiness is what matters, it’s what we’re all here for. But I want to suggest to you that we look to the wrong places for what we aim to find.”

4:27 p.m. “Children are hard work, they’re a source of stress. As a result, they’re hardest on those who have the fewest resources to deal with that source of stress.” Gilbert puts up a graph showing that the happiest parents are older and have more money.

4:24 p.m. 
“My perception of this data as a father is that it’s totally backwards.” The situation looks different to those in the circumstances than to those studying them.

4:21 p.m. “People adapt to negative circumstances, but babies don’t go away.”


4:18 p.m. Gilbert says people with children are less happy than people without, and people whose children live with them are the least happy.

4:16 p.m. Gilbert says you should spend your money on experiences, not things. We can compare the things we buy with the things other people have, but it’s harder to compare our experiences. He also says that spending money on others, not ourselves, gives us a bigger happiness boost.

4:13 p.m. “People aren’t happy when they’re resting. An idle mind drifts to unhappy places.”


4:12 p.m. “Although money does buy happiness the relationship between money and happiness isn’t simple… once we’re making $65,000, we’ve attained 95% of our potential happiness.”

4:09 p.m. “Money buys happiness!”

4:08 p.m. Gilbert pulls up graphs that show how marriage makes people happy, but divorce also makes people happy. Men tend to do better following divorces, he adds.

4:04 p.m. Does marriage cause happiness or does happiness cause marriage? “Yes, happy people do better on the marriage market, but even when we remove that from the statistical data, we still find that marriage makes people happier.”

4:02 p.m. Gilbert polls the room, asking how many people think marriage causes happiness. Only a few hands go up, none from students. Gilbert then pulls up a graph showing that married people are statistically happier than their single counterparts. “Everything that makes people happy, married people have more of it.”

3:59 p.m. Gilbert explains that his mother told him he needed to have three things to be happy: marriage, money, and children. He says his research has proven mothers in every culture tell their kids those same three things.

3:57 p.m. Gilbert says that we can measure happiness via a number of scientific metrics, or just by asking people questions.

3:54 p.m. “There are a lot of places we can turn for the inspiration for our happiness, and we turn to our culture… But can we use the field of science to explain happiness?”

3:52 p.m. Gilbert: “The ugly fact is that getting what you want is not the key to happiness, because you want the wrong thing.”

3:51 p.m. Gilbert: “Our ancestors’ theory was that happiness is what happens when you get what you want, and that never happens on this earth.”

3:48 p.m. Associate professor of psychology India Johnson introduces Gilbert, saying that she inspired her venture into academia.

3:43 p.m.  Lambert: “I ask you to dive in to your education and be vocal advocates for higher education. I ask you to be advocates for the liberal arts and sciences, to be the voice in your community to help others understand the essential role of education, and to prepare yourselves with the fundamental facts about the importance of education.”

3:38 p.m. Leo Lambert takes the podium to introduce Gilbert. He emphasizes the value of a college education.

3:36 p.m. After the academic procession, Joel Harter, associate chaplain for protestant life, and Jessica Waldman, director of Jewish life at Hillel, have taken the stage to deliver the invocation.

Caught between cultures: one professor’s journey from China to Elon

(Above image: Duan in a library at the University of Washington — Photo courtesy Xiaolin Duan)

Xiaolin Duan thinks it’s strange that so many Americans see China as a restrictive communist state. She would say that it’s quite the opposite. And she would know. Duan spent her whole childhood there — all the way through college — before moving to the United States for graduate school.

Duan has worked as a history professor at Elon University since 2015, but the journey she took to get to the little brick-strewn campus has been far from typical. Duan grew up in Xi’an, a city of eight million people in northwestern China. Studying Chinese history and culture as an undergrad in Beijing, she elected to go overseas to the University of Washington in Seattle to pursue her PhD in 2008.

She came to the United States because American teaching of Chinese history has a more social and cultural focus than its Chinese counterpart. As she’s spent time studying and teaching Chinese culture, though, she’s learned a bit about American culture along the way.

“It’s a society that really values individualism and independence,” Duan said. “It’s a society where if you have some request, you should speak up. In China, traditional values say you should hold it back. There are less social rules in the U.S.”

Starting, struggling, staying

Although she’s had some time to adjust since she first got here, the jump from China to the U.S. wasn’t necessarily an easy one at first. Duan struggled in the classroom, where her English language skills weren’t always able to catch up with her thinking. She also struggled outside the classroom, though, as she and her friends — also Chinese expats studying abroad — had differing ideas about life in America.

UW campus
Duan at the University of Washington

The two other students she lived with, a guy and a girl who came with her from the same university in China, would talk about their lives in the U.S. over dinner. Her female friend suggested that in order to integrate smoothly, they should talk and socialize mainly with American students. Her male friend argued that the time they spent with American students in the classroom was more than enough, and that they needed to maintain their ties with their homeland by hanging out with other Chinese students at UW.

“At one point,” Duan said, “I would speak Chinese to my friend and she would speak English back at me. And we both found it okay. And we did that for months.”

Now, though, she’s settled down a long way from Seattle, and a world away from Xi’an. Her first stop after leaving Seattle was Luther College, a small school of about 2,000 students, tucked away in the cornfields of Northeast Iowa. After just a year there, she rerouted to Elon.

Duan originally moved to Burlington when she got the job at Elon, but didn’t stay in Alamance County for long.

“Everyone is so friendly,” Duan said, “but I just felt that I may not belong in Burlington. It wasn’t very obvious for the first semester, but in my second semester I started to feel this calling from Chapel Hill and Durham. So I moved there last November and now I feel like I’m living in a community where half of the people are international.”

Having settled in to a community where she is comfortable, Duan has had some time to reflect on the nine years she’s spent living in the United States.

In the beginning, she noticed the little differences between life on each side of the Pacific.

“For the first couple months,” said Duan, I was really concerned and bothered that there is no food — especially street food — after nine p.m. If I’m craving some food after nine, instant noodles seemed to be the easiest choice, and that bothered me.”

But now, she thinks about the things that have changed for Chinese people in the U.S. in the time that she’s been here. In 2008, Duan said, she and her friends barely talked about the election. Maybe they watched one of the debates, but they didn’t find much interest in American politics. This year, though, things have been much different.

Every night when she gets home, Duan sees her phone light up with hundreds of messages in group message chats with her friends, some Chinese expats in America, some still living in China. They like to talk about how the Chinese-American community handled the most recent election. It’s a topic, she says, that has split that community.

“Now we can see that we will stay in this society for a considerably long time, so we care more about what this society will turn into.”

Managing misconceptions

Duan has some other thoughts on American society, too. She thinks that it’s a little odd that so many Americans have this idea that China is a restrictive communist state. She teaches a class called “Western Imaginations of China”, and at the beginning of every semester, she asks her students about their pre-existing ideas of what life in China is like. And every year, students paint a picture of the “Red China” of years past. Years that ended before Duan was even born.

She says that this perception is about 85 percent stereotype.

“I never felt any restraints on what I could read or what I couldn’t read,” she said. “I remember my parents reading or watching the movies or books that were supposedly banned, but apparently we had ways to find that online.”

It certainly didn’t feel dangerous, either. Americans sometimes seem to focus on China’s apparent restrictions on what people can say and think. An example that is often brought up is the assumption that the Chinese government works hard to suppress all knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, an infamous demonstration that ended in the massacre of hundreds of Chinese civilians by government troops.

“I still remember something I know now but didn’t notice at the time,” said Duan. “One day my parents’ friends were visiting from Beijing and they first put me to bed. And before I fell asleep I remember overhearing my dad ask the friend in a lower voice, ‘Do you still remember the 1989 thing?’ And then I passed out. Now I’m thinking about how adults talk about this quite freely, they’re probably a little bit hesitant to have their kids know about it, but apparently there’s not much restriction of what they can talk about among friends.”

A young Duan in her hometown of Xi’an

She doesn’t really know where Americans are getting the idea that China is still like the communist state it once was, but she actually thinks it’s kind of funny. While Americans like to talk about the fact that the Chinese government censors websites like Facebook and Google, Duan and her friends use the sites freely, and often joke that the Chinese government will send troops to their doors if they make any unapproved anti-party searches.

Her unique cultural situation, not only as a member of both cultures, but also as a teacher, has helped her bust stereotypes and misconceptions on both sides. Just ask David Fletcher, a colleague of hers in Elon’s history department.

“Having been here in the United States and having studied in the U.S., she brings the best of both worlds,” says Fletcher. “She has a foot in China, and has her heart there, but at the same time she also has a perspective from the west and can speak to western students and Asian students to bridge misunderstandings for the both of them.”

A past in two worlds, a future in one 

While she’s had plenty of time to think about how her life has changed since moving to the U.S., her roots are in China, and sometimes she can’t help but think about going back. Her husband Wei, another Chinese native living in the United States, is a professor at Oakland University in Michigan. While their short-term plans keep them in the United States, they talk about the potential of closing the physical distance between them going back to their homeland to start a family.

The two don’t have any children yet, but they go back and forth on where they’d rather raise a kid. She’s found pros and cons for both countries. Duan says that her high school years were some of the unhappiest of her life, and she’s not sure she’d want to put her own child through the Chinese education system. She also considers the idea that her children could have some identity issues growing up Chinese in the U.S.

Although Duan thinks about her decision with a future family in mind, she’s also torn on which country would best suit her own life. Before coming to the U.S. for school, she had always planned on moving back to China after graduating. But now, with almost seven years of her adult life spent in the states, she wonders if that would make the most sense.

“I started my independent life here in the U.S. I’m more familiar with this social system, rather than how to survive in a big city in China,” said Duan. “I know it sounds funny, but I’d feel even more nervous about going back than finding another job here.”

She says that her parents and her roots are back in China, but her friends, husband, and

Elon, Dec 2016
Xiaolin and Wei in 2016

career are in her second home. Both Duan and her husband are only children, meaning that they may have to take care of their parents as they get older, but the U.S. would be hard to leave after having settled in.

To make matters more confusing, she’s unsure which country would be a better place to further her career in academics. Some of her American colleagues warn about the limitations of pursuing academics in China, saying that censorship can get in the way of anyone studying history. But at the same time, some of her friends in China have told her that the she’d have nothing to worry about.

Even staying in the U.S. as an academic could present some issues, she said. Duan worries that recent attitudes and actions towards immigrants could cause trouble. While she has a green card, she wonders if another executive order on immigration could stop her from coming back in if she ever left. In that hypothetical, she wonders if she’d even want to come back.

Duan’s situation has certainly given her a lot to think about, and it’s not quite clear when she might come to a decision. This summer, she and Wei are going back to China to look at job opportunities. But for now, she says that wherever she ends up, she enjoys the opportunity to have lived in two different societies.

“It’s a great experience to live in two cultures and be able to compare the two cultures on a level I didn’t expect,” said Duan. “There are certain challenges to living in a foreign country, and I think those challenges make me a better person.”