Baseball Box Scores: Helpful Statistics or Sports Hieroglyphics?

Article excerpt

Numerous researchers and writers for the popular press have examined the readability of newspaper copy and have pointed to difficult copy as a reason why readership continues to decline. The decline in readership has prompted changes in style and content at newspapers across the country.(1) Readability is a concern to on-line journalists as well, and research has shown no significant difference between newspaper articles and on-line articles.(2) Both forms are generally deemed more difficult than standard reading.

In that mass media outlets attempt to reach large heterogeneous audiences, the managers of those institutions typically strive to present as few challenges to easy communication as possible.(3) Joseph Fusaro and Willis Conover note that reader satisfaction will plummet if stories are too difficult to read.(4) But the readability of articles is a continuing concern. Though some writers consider readability a code word for watering down their work, major newspaper chains have wondered for years about a literacy problem in the United States and whether newspapers are too difficult to read for many potential customers.(5)

According to a research report from the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Journalism Values Institute, some people turn away from newspapers because they consider them dense, irrelevant, boring, and written in the often confusing technical language of experts.(6) In the five decades since Rudolph Flesch(7) developed the first readability scale, numerous academic studies have documented ponderous leads,(8) long, rambling sentences,(9) and readability scores consistently as high as 16.(10) A news story with a readability score of 16 would require the reader to have completed college to fully comprehend the story. Difficult articles are found in both major metropolitan newspapers and smaller dailies.(11) Some argue that by writing articles in the difficult-to-read range, newspapers lose their effectiveness(12) and isolate large segments of the population.(13)

Readability experts say that most people prefer their leisure reading to be about three grade levels below their educational level(14) and newspaper reading is something that most people engage in because they want to, not because they have to. The average American adult has completed one year of college, and the median educational attainment in the United States is 12.9. Half of the American population has a high school diploma or less.(15)

The story-telling style of sports reporting has been characterized as more free-wheeling than news writing(16) and some think the popularity of the sports section has slowed the atrophy of newspaper readership.(17) Others have found that dense prose dominates all sections of the newspaper, including sports.(18) One study documented the readability scores of sports articles at 18.7.(19) The reading level required for an article scoring 18.7 is equivalent to that of a second-year doctoral student. In addition to articles that are sometimes difficult to read, the sports section of the newspaper contains one or more pages of sports minutiae that might be compared to financial tables in another section of the newspaper - "a never-never land filled with arcane codes and hidden formulas that are not designed for mere mortals to comprehend or act upon."(20)

The purpose of this research is to examine readers' ability to decipher sports statistics found in newspapers, specifically, the baseball box score. The box score is the basic chart used to give statistics for a game, and includes sections for pitching, hitting, and fielding. It can include as many as 12 player designations and more than 30 other items.(21)

The author of a popular sports writing text notes that if statistics are reported in a consistent manner day after day, readers learn the code.(22) However, although some publications have dropped box scores from their pages in lieu of more analysis and opinion,(23) others have continued to add categories and data, leaving out only a complete play-by-play. …