Behind The Curtain

Channeling Roget

Before I fell into data analysis in graduate school, I never considered myself to be a "numbers person." High school Algebra was a blast, but in college I gravitated toward language and writing. English boasts an abundance of expressive synonyms, and I reveled in the sometimes subtle differences among them.

As a master's student in library and information science, I felt as if I were betraying books and words by focusing on research, but I soon discovered it wasn't all about numbers. Many surveys – including those we do at NPR – utilize open-ended questions to capture sentiments beyond the simplified "agree" or "disagree" statements. Such questions offer respondents a chance to explain their thoughts or reactions in greater detail, and often lead researchers to approach a subject from an angle they hadn't considered.

Nevertheless, even when we ask you to share your thoughts in your own words, we eventually have to assign your responses numerical values that can be compiled and analyzed. This presents a challenge for the researchers, because those spectacular synonyms I mentioned earlier can mean different things to different people. Trying to confidently interpret a respondent's understanding of those words can be a slippery slope. Can I assume "entertaining" and "amusing" mean pretty much the same thing to most people? Or is "amusing" more similar to "funny"? Because I wouldn't say "funny" and "entertaining" carry the same connotation.

I'll stop there, before it becomes more obvious how much I enjoy reading my desktop thesaurus. But I hope you can see my point. While we're interested in teasing out nuances in individual listeners' thoughts on NPR-related topics, we also want to know how they're connected on a broader level.

That means I get the best of both worlds when I dive into survey responses. First, I can peek into listeners' minds and gain closer insight into what they think and why. And then I get to play with my calculator.

I love being a nerd.

Jamie Helgren is an intern in Audience Insight & Research

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