Making journalists count

March 26, 2009

Journalists have a long and dishonourable tradition of playing fast and loose with figures, stats and numerical analysis. In part, this is because many journalism students have a phobia about maths which stays with them throughout their career – the only exception being when it’s time to work out their expenses, when all journalists suddenly transform into Einsteins. (Yes, I know Einstein was primarily a physicist, although the popular conception that he was poor at maths is misguided. The point is that there aren’t many mathematicians who are universally known – how many journalists have even heard of Gauss,  Riemann, Fermat or Cantor?).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By introducing numeracy skills into the journalism classroom, reporters can acquire the skills they need to critically examine figures in the same way they routinely question other sources of information. We’re not talking about teaching advanced maths here, just the commonsense ability to put numbers into context and test their validity.

Most commonly, this involves being able to work out percentages and different types of average, which only needs the most basic maths skills.

For now, I’ll just recommend Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics [link opens new window], which is a great read despite the fact that many of the examples are from the 1950s, and John Allen Paulos’s A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper [new window].

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