A recent post at wral.com, a local news site here in Wake County, NC, is titled, "Wake County could eliminate 100 positions," a headline which is unfortunately all too common in this time of rising unemployment. The post goes on to tell us a number of other things, including that the elimination of these positions still has to be approved by the Wake County Board of Commissioners, that the cuts could save $3 million at a time when the county is facing a $20 million budget shortfall due to lower-than-projected tax revenue, and that the commissioners have said that "raising taxes is not an option."
All of this is useful information, yet the article doesn't tell us one thing that would help us make more sense out of this "100 positions" number: how many people are employed by Wake County? If Wake County employs, say, 10,000 people, cutting 100 positions means only 1% of their employees will lose their jobs. On the other hand, if Wake County employs 500 people, cutting 100 positions means 20% of their employees will lose their jobs. We need to know how many people work for Wake County in order to know if "100 positions" is a big number or not.
A little bit of googling led me to the wakegov.com website, where I found a pdf of Wake County's Fiscal Year 2009 Recommended Budget. The third paragraph on page 15 of the pdf tells me that "Wake County has over 3700 employees." (Note that this does not include the approximately 18,000 people employed by the Wake County Public School System.) With this information, I can see that Wake County is considering the elimination of a little less than 3% of their workforce.
If the intent is to convey meaningful information, it's not enough to report a number and consider the job finished; one must also provide enough context to make sense of the numbers being reported. In this case, merely reporting that Wake County plans to cut 100 positions, without also reporting the total number of Wake County employees, is not helpful. One might just as well say, "Wake County plans to cut some positions."