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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: The SEC, MU and national politics, by the numbers

By Tom Warhover
September 7, 2012 | 7:43 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

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$185,000,000. That’s a lot of zeros.

Thursday afternoon, a trio of organizations announced the results of an economic impact study by MU College of Business graduate students.

Not surprisingly, the study said that football and other MU athletics events should be very, very good for Our Fair City this year.

Is $185 million a lot? I couldn’t find out from the Missourian article, but the reporter was smart to put the original documents on columbiamissourian.com.

DocumentCloud allows readers like me to look at original material. In this case, the document was essentially the presentation. It gave the methodology of the study. It said that in 2010-11, the direct economic impact was estimated at $89 million. When you add indirect spending like “salaries, purchases from local business and student tuition,” the estimate goes up to $147 million.

Now I have something to compare. I’m still left with questions, but at least I have a baseline.

“Compared to what?” is too often missing from the work of seasoned, professional journalists these days.

I heard two national reports about the cancellation of the outdoor venue for President Obama’s acceptance speech in Charlotte, N.C. You might have read or heard something similar: Republicans alleging the event was canceled because the Democrats couldn’t fill the stadium, and Democrats saying balderdash, it’s a safety precaution because of the weather.

Neither of the reports compared the claims to the actual weather forecast. Wouldn’t that have given me some context — some facts — behind the arguments? For the record, city editor John Schneller, a weather geek, looked it up for me Thursday morning. There was a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms for the evening.

(Fact-checking, by the way, has become all the rage. Most major news outlets have some version of a fact-check column. The Washington Post even has a Pinocchio tracker, where the size of the nose equates to the level of fabrication. It’s all vaguely embarrassing, though, because it points out what’s been missing in those articles that run on front pages and home pages throughout the country.)

Numbers are particularly elastic. They can mean so many things, or nothing at all.

I couldn’t walk a block down Ninth Street Friday without running into someone wearing the red and black of the Georgia Bulldogs. I know MU’s move to the SEC is a Big Deal for Columbia, even for those who never watch a single down on the gridiron.

When describing the economic impact at Thursday’s announcement, athletics director Mike Alden said 100 private planes were expected to land at Columbia Regional Airport.

I’m willing to bet that 100 is a whole lot more than a normal Columbia weekend. I figure it would even be safe to guess that the figure is higher than any home game against Texas or Nebraska or any of the other Big 12 former opponents. (Remember that conference?)

But I’m not certain that I’d be right.