Givin' It All Up for Nothin' « PREV | NEXT »: WSJ Culture Section Would Fill a Void in New York

July 6, 2009

Let's Do the Numbers

In Slate today, Zachary Pincus-Roth poses an excellent question: When journalists report box-office numbers, shouldn't they "at least factor in inflation, instead of pretending that it doesn't exist?"

This is how he explains the omission:

Journalists like to ignore this basic economic principle because, for one thing, "Johnny Depp's best weekend ever" is a more exciting headline than "Johnny Depp's 14th-best weekend ever in inflation-adjusted dollars when starring in a Tim Burton-directed children's novel adaptation." And perhaps journalists don't care because the public doesn't, either. As readers, we get excited about records being broken. As moviegoers, we feel reassured knowing that everyone in America saw the same blockbuster as we did last weekend. But there's good reason to care about accuracy.

With accuracy in mind, it's worth pointing out that Pincus-Roth -- in an otherwise incisive piece -- misses the main reason that the numbers are off: Journalists in general have a terrible phobia of math; that may go double (wait, is that math?) for arts journalists. So if they can avoid doing the numbers, they're going to -- even if that means that they give the wrong context or emphasis to a story, or hype something that's thoroughly unremarkable, as is often the case when they report box-office numbers without factoring in inflation.

"Lay readers, who now follow the box office as if it's a sport, should recognize that ignoring inflation is like comparing the world record for the 100-meter dash to the record for, say, a 3-meter dash," Pincus-Roth writes. "That's a more apt comparison than you might think: The average ticket price in 1939 (23 cents) is 3 percent of the price in 2009 ($7.18)."

When journalists are taking the long view, they also err if they fail to note the ever-increasing population; no wonder more people are watching movies now than 70 years ago. To get a bigger audience than in 1939 is probably not so tough even for the most mediocre offerings. But to grab a bigger share of the population? There's a challenge.

The Hollywood box office is Pincus-Roth's focus, but his point applies to any box-office figures, and to many of the other quantitative measurements we report -- sometimes without examining them very closely. Broadway box-office totals this season, for example, are being tabulated according to a new formula, more advantageous to producers than in years past. I predict that this difference will be largely ignored by reporters and their editors.

As an editor, I long ago discovered that the part of any given story that's most likely to be wrong is the math. But we're letting ourselves off too easy if we decide that doing it in the first place isn't part of our job. When we're blithe about the numbers -- when we accept the figures we're given without evaluating them critically, when we assign to them meaning that isn't there, even if interested parties tell us it is -- we end up concocting news that is, in Pincus-Roth's words, "utter bunk."
July 6, 2009 6:52 AM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

The other part of the math story worth noting is the questionable value of reporting box office numbers, and how that story stands instead of other possible stories. The numbers are reported as if they mean something, but what are they telling us? How filmgoers' tastes are so horrible that they flocked to see Transformers again last weekend? The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival stopped releasing attendance numbers because the numbers-related stories always forced a growth/stasis/decline narrative on to reporting on the festival, which would stand in place of more interesting, engaged reporting on the festival.

Leave a comment

















Archives

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


About

    ARTicles ARTicles is a project of 
    the National Arts Journalism Program, an association of some 500 journalists in the United States. Our group blog is a place for arts and cultural journalists to share ideas and information, to celebrate what we do, and to make the case for its continuing value. ARTicles is edited by Laura Collins-Hughes. To contact her, click here.
    more

    ARTicles Bloggers Meet our bloggers: Sasha Anawalt, MJ Andersen, Alicia Anstead, Laura Bleiberg, Larry Blumenfeld, Jeanne Carstensen, Robert Christgau, Laura Collins-Hughes, Thomas Conner, Lily Tung Crystal, Richard Goldstein, Patti Hartigan, Glenn Kenny, Wendy Lesser, Ruth Lopez, Nancy Malitz, Douglas McLennan, Tom Moon, Abe Peck, Peter Plagens, John Rockwell, Werner Trieschmann, Lesley Valdes and Douglas Wolk. more

    NAJP NAJP is America's largest organization dedicated to the advancement of arts and cultural journalism. The NAJP has produced research, publications and discussions and works to bring together journalists, artists, news executives, cultural organization administrators, funders and others concerned with arts and culture in America today. more

    Join NAJP Join America's largest organization of arts journalists. Here's how more

see all archives

Contact: articles@najp.org

Recent Comments