Color by Numbers (in Narratives)

Let’s face it: Journalists aren’t known for being good with numbers. But that doesn’t mean they don’t write about them. A slew of recent headlines involving numbers come to mind, including: “Dow Closes Up 936, Biggest Point Gain Ever,”; “Bengal’s Wide Receiver Changes Last Name to Ocho Cinco”; and “Marry Me at 8 on the 8th, OK?”

Numbers are important details (think ages, room numbers, times, distances), that can help give inanimate objects distinguishable identities. Consider, for example, an article from The Washington Post‘s Walter Reed series written by Anne Hull and Dana Priest:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18 …

The number 18 is a detail that makes the building seem more like a character than a setting. Take a look at another passage from the same article:

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely — a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them — the majority soldiers, with some Marines — have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

Hull and Priest weave numbers into almost the entire narrative without making the piece seem as though it’s bogged down with technicalities. Numbers are sometimes better represented in charts or graphs, but often they add color and depth to what may otherwise just be an average story.

When writing stories, it’s important to keep in mind the “magic number three.” Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, suggests writing out lists or examples in sets of threes. “In storytelling,” he says, “three is the magic number. Four is too many.” Lots of things are grouped in threes: The father, son and the holy spirit; Larry, Moe and Curly; Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

The New York Times highlighted the number three
in a Sunday Styles piece this week. I like the article for two reasons: 1.) It puts an unusual twist on the news about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg running for a third term and 2.) It asks a rather obscure question (“Whence, then, the lure of three?”) and leaves readers with an epiphany moment that makes them think, “Ahh, it makes sense now!” New York Times reporter Andy Newman writes:

Throughout history and across disciplines, from the triple crown of horse racing to the trilogy as bid for literary greatness, the No. 3 has represented the pinnacle of achievement, the triple crème de la crème: the Nile, the Tower of Pisa, the smile on the Mona Lisa.

Perhaps the wise man on “Schoolhouse Rock” said it best:

“Three is a magic number./Yes it is; it’s a magic number./Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity/You get three as a magic number.

The number three has always been my “magic,” or lucky, number. I’ve grown to like the number 33 even more because I think it represents extra good luck. And, the native Bostonian that I am, I can’t help but think of Larry Bird and his No. 33 Celtics jersey. I’ve considered changing my lucky number to 508, though. This number seems to follow me wherever I go. It was the area code for my hometown in Massachusetts, it was the street number of my apartment in Clearwater, Fla., and it’s the street number of The Dallas Morning News‘ main building. Strange, isn’t it, how numbers find their way into our lives?

As a journalist, I may not be good with numbers, but I try to pay attention to them, if for no other reason than to tell better stories.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at

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