Two reasons journalists should learn to love Excel

I love Microsoft Excel, I really do. It’s currently the second highest item in my Start Menu, that’s how frequently I use it (now that I think about it, I should just pin it). I use it for all kinds of things – calculations, cleaning up data, and yes, generating graphs. It’s a really versatile tool, and it’s really easy to use (especially the latest version).

I often talk about changes I’d like to see in the mainstream media, and two important ones are context and presentation. There are so many stories that seem like they’re written in a vacuum. A story about housing starts is a good example, like this one from the Edmonton Journal yesterday. There’s 560 words there, words about numbers. Is that the best way to present that information? And even if you think it is, where’s the context? How do the housing starts this month relate to averages and historical numbers?

That’s the first reason that journalists should learn to love Excel – it can make providing context and better presentation easy. Here are three simple graphs, created with Excel, that tell you about housing starts in Edmonton.

This data comes from a PDF provided by the City of Edmonton. It shows annual housing starts since 1970. Copy and paste into Excel and you’re done!

This graph shows monthly housing starts from October 2008 until now. It uses data from the CMHC’s Reports & Publications section. Took maybe 10 minutes of copying and pasting.

This graph compares housing starts for this time of year from 2006 until now. Also comes from the CMHC.

Imagine if the article included graphs like these. The journalist could then focus on telling a more interesting story.

So, what’s the second reason journalists should learn to love Excel? Well, it can help them get their story right. Here’s what the Journal article starts with:

Despite a strong spring, the slowing trend in new-home construction became clear in October with housing starts dropping to their lowest level since June 2009 in the Edmonton region.

As you can see from the second graph above, that’s just not true. Is there a slowing trend? Maybe, if you just look from the spring to now. Was October the lowest level since June 2009? No. There were just 690 starts in August 2010. In fact, there were six months with lower housing starts since June 2009. I’m not sure what data the Journal was looking at, but it doesn’t appear to be CMHC data.

Add Excel to your toolkit. You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: Here’s the Journal story on August housing starts. Maybe if finding archived stories was easier, Dave Cooper, who wrote the story on October housing starts, could have consulted previous Journal articles to see that the lowest level was much more recent than June 2009.

7 thoughts on “Two reasons journalists should learn to love Excel

  1. Great article Mack. When I was an analyst in the tech space I used to get all these press releases and you have to dig through the spin. Things like “Revenues are up 5% QoQ”, but until you punched those numbers into the spreadsheet and you could see that normally they are up 50% in that particular quarter, then you wouldn’t have the perspective you need.
    Unfortunately most journalists are just rushed. But keeping a good spreadsheet on the companies or topics you follow is essential. I used to update it when listening to quarterly conference calls.(those things are pretty boring anyway)

  2. Nicely done.

    I usually bypass a lot of business stories for just the reasons you’re talking about. They tend to lack context and the numbers can get confused.

    You make an excellent case as to why visualizations should become part of more stories.

  3. Good post, I just might have used scatterplots / line graphs as opposed to bar-graphs for this data (especially when trying to show a trend). Of course the important things is to actually visualize data at all let alone the best way to do so.

  4. I think this is why business stories in magazines (online and off) tend to be better. First of all, they often do include graphs. Second, since magazines are usually published less frequently than newspapers, they can spend a bit of extra time on their stories, meaning that they’re less rushed and have more time to actually compare the numbers (and make graphs).

  5. Most professional journalists get lazy. Add all the other factors discussed and it is clear why the professional media has met its match in informal journalism and blogging which, by definition, is driven by people who are enthusiastic about their topic.

    In the old days, we would craft news releases with quotable quotations. It was always amazing to me how many journalists and news editors would just quote right from the news release and never do any follow up calls or digging.

    Great work, Mack. You are a breath of fresh air!

  6. I lend a critical eye to ANY story about homes in the media.

    Promoting a buyers market suggests that the market could rebound at any time, and that buying now is crucial. Meanwhile, home sales are quite clearly healthy.

    This tinted media promotes the false buyers market, ensuring that people see their entrance to the home market as opportunistic instead of herd mentality. If the truth was advertised, more people would continue to hold off on that large purchase, and the economy would sink lower.

    I don’t want to be the conspiracy nut, but I’m looking at entering the market myself. I’ve done some reading and I’ve followed prices. They’re still dropping, despite how many articles say that ‘the resurgence is here’.

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