Math can be as powerful
in journalism as grammar

By Jess DeWitt
Bulletin Staff

Grammar is underrated, and is the road map to writing, according to John Ruddy, copy desk chief of The Day of New London, Conn.

He was on a panel that discussed “How to be your own copy editor” at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s recent winter convention. Grammar was one of the main topics. So was mathematic

The panelists were Ruddy; Tom Zuppa, managing editor of The Sun of Lowell, Mass., Emily Sweeney, a reporter for The Boston Globe; and Charles St. Amand, a journalism teacher at Suffolk University and secretary of the New England Society of News Editors.

St. Amand quizzed the more than 30 people who attended on the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the book he recommends for all grammar questions, mainly because he has found it helpful for the topics he covered, including capitalization, indefinite pronouns, and words that sound the same, such as “there, their, and they’re.”

But St. Amand’s favorite feature in the AP Stylebook is one of which he said many people are unaware.

“There’s this great feature, Ask the Editor, that has never failed me,” St. Amand said. “I get pretty deep into whether this is correct, or that is correct. The editor sometimes contradicts (himself or herself), and someone will say, ‘You said three years ago that it was this, and now you’re saying it’s that. And the editor will say, ‘My bad, I’ve done that and fixed it.’  

On the Ask the Editor feature on the AP Stylebook’s website, questions, corrections and other communications can be sent to the Stylebook editor.

That is not the only feature of the AP Stylebook that St. Amand applauded.

“Style changes every year,” St. Amand said. “The nice thing is, if you have a 2017 Stylebook and they come out with a new one this year, the new one has, at the very beginning of it, the changes or the additions that they’ve made.”

St. Amand tells his journalism students at Suffolk that there is no need to buy a new AP Stylebook every year because of that feature. It allows them to see all of the updates as long as they know another student with the newest edition.

Zuppa took the discussion in a different direction and quizzed the audience on mathematics. He explained the power that math can have in certain forms of journalism, particularly when reporting on taxes.

“Tax rates have two components: the change in the tax rate and the change in home valuation,” Zuppa said. “You’re sitting in that city council meeting, and they announce the tax rate is going down. And the city council applauds the manager, and the manager applauds the assessors, and the assessors take a bow and everyone did a great job. And then, quarter three bills come out and your phone starts ringing because you reported on the tax rate going down (when taxes actually went up).”

Zuppa said the tax rate is only one part of the tax equation. If your home valuation goes up and your tax rate goes down, then taxes can go up, because it’s possible for the rate to go down but for valuations to go up enough that the taxes go up.

“Math can be really challenging, and if you learn some really rudimentary things and do small things to start off, you can get into projects like (the explanation about taxes) eventually, and get the kinds of stories that will really explain things for your community,” Zuppa said.

The session was held Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel in South Boston.