New campaign offers tips to help journalists get their numbers straight

February 9, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

Thanks to a campaign from the U.K.’s Royal Statistical Society, journalists now have access to a great collection of tips to help them report numbers accurately.

Former journalist David Walker is the director of Getstats, the Society’s campaign to improve statistical literacy, and he has set part of his sights on newsrooms.

David Walker

The organization recently released 12 “rules of thumb for journalists” to help them do a better job handling numbers. The tips for “numbers hygiene” include “sniff around” and ask, “out of how many?” also has a related story that offers additional tips to help journalists avoid five common pitfalls related to numbers.

In keeping with the spirit of numeracy, I wrote a previous column that shared advice from Sarah Cohen, author of the book, “Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.”

I also followed up with Walker to learn more about the motivation behind Getstats and to tease out a few more tips from him. Here’s our edited exchange.

Poynter: Why do you think journalists struggle with numbers?

David Walker: In the UK, it’s a matter of training and aptitude. Too few media courses insist on even basic statistical literacy — but we’re working to change that and a lot of journalism educators are on side. Journalists, who are supposed to be professionally sceptical, often become gullible when numbers are involved and fail to interrogate them or their provenance. What results is a sort of ‘faith-based’ journalism where numbers are reproduced uncritically.

A study years ago of U.S. newspaper journalists found that they had little faith in their ability to handle numbers. Yet a test administered to that same group of journalists found their skills were actually better than they’d predicted. So is confidence a factor?

Absolutely right. Journalists have to be mentally quick and I don’t at all doubt their capacity. Look at the work of sports journalists, for example, who handle numbers with aplomb. So getting journalists talking more about stats and numbers and embedding them in their ‘normal’ reporting, blogging and commentary is the task.

How is it that it became acceptable for journalists to say things like, “I don’t do math”?

Once people said similar things about ethnicity, gender and even tobacco smoking. Sensibilities change. That’s why we’re campaigning, to try to alter the consciousness of public and media professional alike, to make them ashamed to be anything other than comfortable around numbers and stats.

Your tips look at things like averages, risk, percentages etc. What’s the starting point for a journalist trying to get a better handle on numbers?

It’s a quizzical attitude. Don’t take a number for granted. Ask who generated it, whether they had an interest. Ask about who did the sample and with what degree of accuracy the sample represents a wider population. We’re not expecting journalists to be math stars, rather to apply to numbers the same techniques and approaches they do to other areas of relative ignorance — ask questions and go to trusted sources to establish what’s right. There are plenty of folk out there equipped to help.

Tip #10 says, “Good reporting gives a balanced view of the size of the numbers being reported. Better to focus on the most likely number rather than the most extreme, for example in stories about the effects of a flu pandemic. ‘Could be as high as’ points to an extreme; better to say ‘unlikely to be greater than’.” I admit my reaction was to think that many journalists would face criticism from an editor if they didn’t pick the more shocking number to highlight. Is the tendency to make numbers as sexy or alarming a challenge? How do you combat that within newsrooms?

In the UK we’re in the midst of a great debate about whether journalists can be trusted. Professional pride demands you get the story right. Taking the BIG NUMBER is a recipe for inaccuracy. A good journalist will tell the desk editor, ‘No, that can’t run as the lead, but (after examining the data with rigour and imagination) here’s another angle derived from the same set of figures. And it’s OUR story – not the story being run by the competition.’

A lot of journalists end up quoting public opinion surveys, but not all polls or surveys are created equal. How do you sniff out the bogus claims, or present them in context, especially given the fact that this is a presidential year in the U.S.?

Scepticism about sources applies to numbers and stats. The federal government runs a world class stats service — don’t let extremists tell you different. Government statisticians, who work with a code of conduct that is transparent and accountable, can be trusted; how the politicians spin the numbers is a different issue. Think tanks vary. A good journalist knows her or his way around the credibility of such sources.

One last question: what’s the reaction been from journalists so far to the campaign?

So far, a surprising number of journalists have (somewhat shamefacedly) acknowledged they’d like to do better in handling and reporting numbers. Some media organisations, for example the BBC and the Guardian, have created data and statistics editor positions and are enthusiastic partners in the campaign.


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