Why Math Matters

Like many reporters, Roger Simon was never very good at math. "My SAT scores in math were so low that during my college interviews the interviewers said things like, 'Did you leave the room halfway through?' or 'Are you sure you understood the concept of multiple choice?'"

His poor math skills didn't keep him from getting into college. Nor did they keep him from landing a job as a reporter. Simon was an adult and, so he thought, he no longer needed math. But there was one problem.

"As a reporter," Simon recalled in a 1990 newspaper column, "I found I needed math all the time."

He needed math on police stories: "If the gunman entered the bank at 4:17 p.m., and the hostages were not released until 1:02 a.m., how long were they held captive?"

He needed math on tax stories: "If the average county tax bill was $3,334.47 last year, and this year it's $4,567.29, by what percentage did it increase?"

Simon found he needed math "on all kinds of stories. So slowly and painfully I had to learn in real life what I had not learned in school."

Simon went on to become an award-winning columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Baltimore Sun and today is chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report.

But as a beginning reporter, he suffered from a common journalistic ailment: Innumeracy, defined by mathematician John Allen Paulos as "an inability to deal comfortably with fundamental notions of number and chance."

If Simon had been an illiterate -- someone who lacks the ability to read and write -- he never would have been allowed in a newsroom. But as an innumerate, it didn't matter that he wasn't good at math. If you don't know the difference between a noun and a verb, you could never get a job as a reporter or editor. But newsrooms are full of people who don't know how to calculate a percentage.

I sympathize with Roger Simon and all the reporters out there who get nervous when numbers come up in a story. Experts blame innumeracy on bad teachers, psychological blocks, and what mathematician Paulos calls "romantic misconceptions about the nature of mathematics."

That all sounds very familiar. In high school and college, I was a terrible math student. I flunked geometry, was totally bewildered by algebra. Trigonometry I ran from. I had trouble balancing a checkbook. As a reporter, I was painfully aware of my innumeracy every time a percentage appeared in my story. Budget stories made me cringe.

Without math skills I was not as effective a journalist, and my readers weren't as well-served as they could have been. It wasn't just the mistakes I made or the agonies I went through trying to figure things out. As a reporter I regurgitated statistics without understanding them because I didn't feel capable of interpreting them. I'm sure I missed stories and screwed up others because of my weak
math skills. And I'm not alone.

Widespread journalistic innumeracy is a serious problem.

More than half -- 58 percent -- of the job applicants interviewed by broadcast news directors lacked an adequate understanding of statistical materials, such as a municipal budget. That was the finding of Tomorrow's Broadcast Journalists -- A Report and Recommendations From the Jane Pauley Task Force on Mass Communication Education, published in 1996 by the Society of Professional Journalists.

"Deploying numbers skillfully is as important to communication as deploying verbs, but you won't find many media practicing that philosophy," argued Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times.

In his Times column, Frankel complained that most schools of journalism give short shrift to statistics, "the science of learning from data," as defined by Jon Kettenring, president of the American Statistical Association.

Frankel observed:

Some let students graduate without any numbers training at all. In the professional world, it's a rare newsroom that provides any on-the-job training in the accurate use of numbers. How can such reporters write sensibly about trade and welfare and crime, or airfares, health care, and nutrition? The media's sloppy use of numbers about the incidence of accidents or disease frightens people and leaves them vulnerable to journalistic hype, political demagoguery, and commercial fraud.

"Aversion to all things numerical seems universal among journalists, and it causes nothing but trouble in today's newsrooms," observed Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent who is executive director of NewsLab, a Washington, D.C., group devoted to improving local TV news. "Simply put, journalists need math skills to make sense of numbers the way they need language skills to make sense of words."

The Poynter Institute includes numeracy as one of the skills today's journalists need to be competent. Competency with numbers requires:

  • Basic working knowledge of arithmetic

  • Familiarity with statistics

  • Ability to calculate percentages, ratios, rates of change, and other relationships between numbers

  • Ability to translate numbers into terms that readers and viewers can understand

  • Knowing the difference between median and mean averages

  • Understanding of margin of error in polling

  • Basic understanding of probability theory

  • Understanding of graphs and other pictorial representations of numbers.

Too often, says Potter, who developed Poynter's guidelines for numerical competency when she was on the Institute's faculty, "reporters and editors are suckers for numbers. To them, a number looks solid, factual, more trustworthy than a fallible human source. And being numerically incompetent, they can't find the flaws in statistics and calculations. They can't tell the difference between a meaningless number and a significant one. The result is stories that are misleading and confusing at best and, at worst, flat out wrong."

As Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and author of "Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide," points out, "journalists report on statistics every day with less-than-complete understanding," or we avoid them because we "don't do math."

You will use math as a reporter nearly every day. Whatever route you take in journalism -- print, broadcast, online news -- or whatever job you hold -- reporter, copy editor, graphics artist, Web producer -- you will have to count on math skills.

"Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computation," says Paulos. "It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us." So Paulos recommends that reporters add a list of other questions to the five W's, such as "how many?" "how far?" "how likely?" "what percentage?" and "what rate?"

The biggest reason you need to know math as a journalist is so you won't be easily fooled. Your audience expects you to sort fact from fantasy. Your audience expects you to get it right. Just as a grammatical error, or an error of fact, undermines your credibility, so does a mathematical error. The 21st-century journalist will need basic understanding of mathematics and statistics.

"Simply reporting what someone said or did is no longer enough to ensure an information professional's career," says Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review and author of an online statistical primer. "Information professionals who wish to survive the Internet age must be able to synthesize and analyze words, deeds, and data so that they can report to their readers and clients the reality of what is happening in their world today."

Lynne Enders Glaser, former ombudsman for the Fresno Bee in California, made a passionate call for reform:

"For eons, it's been a standard line in newsrooms that journalists don"t do math. It's been stated so often that many reporters and editors seem to accept it as a valid, logical reason for mistakes. And they seem to think that readers agree. But, readers don't. They repeatedly say it is not okay to give them numbers that don't compute ... something needs to change here, and it needs to start with attitude. The newsroom should take numbers as seriously as words."

This article is an excerpt from "Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century" (Oxford University Press).

  • Profile picture for user chipscan

    Chip Scanlan

    Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


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