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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

Digging the digits from Cleveland to Hudson to Kent

Journalists work with numbers every day, whether reporting on budgets, rankings or the passage of time.
Journalists work with numbers every day, whether reporting on budgets, rankings or the passage of time.

"Reporters and numbers do not mix."

I’m paraphrasing one of many kernels of wisdom from M.L. Schultze, hard-bitten journalist and former WKSU news director. “Schultze” (I never learned exactly what “M.L.” stood for) is the one who hired me despite an audition tape that sounded like it was recorded with two Dixie cups, a piece of string and a mouth full of more string. (I think her second favorite phrase was, “Kabir, where are your shoes?”)

Numbers have never scared me, as my father is an engineer and mathematics is the first subject in which I excelled (followed by English and driver’s ed). Any time a story mentions “a 17% drop” in something or a “50% increase,” I can already picture the display of my TI-81 calculator spitting out the result. Whenever I come across a historical date of some kind, I look up what else was happening in the world on that date. Perhaps there’s a connection?

What bothers me, though, is when numbers are manipulated and misrepresented. One example in my arena (arts & culture) is Billboard chart metrics. Both Drake and Michael Jackson are listed as having 13 chart-toppers. Yet the criteria for the former (who first hit No. 1 in 2010) is vastly different than it was for MJ (from 1972-95). Comparing their accomplishments isn’t valid.

I see numerous, more troubling examples of this in election materials. For example, where I live (Hudson), there are school board candidates decrying the “drop in our district’s scores.” The specific score or metric isn’t usually cited. Yet in digging further, I learned that this is a reference to the U.S. News Best High School rankings. It’s not the entire district, just the high school that I attended for three years (spread out over four years).

Saying that the entire district has “fallen” from 235 (in 2013) to 540 (in 2023) seems onerous, scandalous and alarming … until one checks the sourcing: U.S. News expanded its list from 4,805 schools in 2013 to 17,680 a decade later. Using simple math, Hudson High School actually moved up from the top 4.8% to the top 3%. (Thanks, TI-81!)

Sadly, this is not a new problem when it comes to elections. I encourage everyone voting — which I hope is everyone reading this — to check facts and their sources (as we do every day at Ideastream Public Media).

One last piece of numerology is bittersweet for me. This week, Wendy Turner, General Manager of Ohio Public Media Services, announced she’s leaving Ideastream to run Michigan Public Radio in Ann Arbor.

Wendy was general manager of WKSU prior to the merger with Ideastream, and it’s fitting that she made her announcement on Halloween: her first day in Kent was on October 31, 2016. She’s made it a perfect seven-year circle!

My wife, a Biblical scholar, reminded me that the number seven stands for fullness and completion. Wendy has certainly accomplished a lot, from bringing our stations together to launching the Ohio Newsroom to letting me watch PG-13 movies when my Mom said I couldn’t. She’ll be missed!

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.