Journalists Need to Do the Math

Numbers still make many watchdogs whimper

CAIRO—I tell my students that in addition to English they should learn two more languages: an in-demand foreign tongue, and statistics.

Studying Chinese or Hindi is a great move for an aspiring reporter, but numbers are the true global language. Journalists who can amass and interpret data can cover more of the world in a short time than reporters who just spill prose based on what they see.

The argument that journalists should embrace statistics is not new, but neither is it roundly heeded. Philip Meyer argued in his 1973 book, Precision Journalism, that “those of us who opted for verbal skills by taking up journalism have some catching up to do…[t]he tradition that the world of knowledge is populated by two different kinds of people—those who read [and write] and those who count—is swiftly decaying.”

And yet this harmful dichotomy persists. It is still common to hear a journalist woefully mumble, or even gleefully declare, that they’re “not a math person.” Plenty of college journalism programs, including the one in which I teach, don’t require students to take a statistics course. Some young people even gravitate toward journalism because they believe there won’t be any math involved.

Them hounds don’t hunt.

“Journalists need to be data-savvy,” World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee recently argued. “These are the people whose jobs are to interpret what government is doing to the people. So it used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times. But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyze it and picking out what’s interesting.”

In their latest book, Blur, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel recount a story of a reporter poring over data and saving lives. On a trans-Atlantic flight in the late 1980s, a fellow passenger of Chicago Tribune reporter John Crewdson suffered a medical emergency. After flight attendants made a request for any doctors on board to identify themselves, Crewdson began wondering about the preparedness of airlines to deal with a medical emergency miles above the ocean and potentially thousands more miles from land.

He compiled data on how many airline passengers died each year on U.S. flights, and determined that many perished, even in the presence of doctors, because planes weren’t equipped with electronic defibrillators and circulatory drugs. He calculated that equipping every plane in the U.S. with defibrillators and basic medical kits would cost a total of $56 million over ten years—around $4,100 per plane—and require just a two-cent hike in the cost of every airline ticket. For years now, partly because of Crewdson’s reporting, these medical devices have been required on airlines throughout the world. This was a case of a statistically savvy reporter who sniffed a wrong in the air and used his tools to test it.

Ever heard a journalist complain about not being able to find a story? I’m willing to bet this reporter wasn’t someone who completed a few statistics courses and has some interesting databases to play around with, or can build their own.

Fortunately for journalists who aren’t “math people,” the latest WikiLeaks bombshell sprayed shards of diplomatic cables, which, if one reads English, can be combed and discussed. But if they don’t have basic knowledge of descriptive and inferential statistics, what will reporters be able to do with even moderately complex datasets dumped on WikiLeaks? Sadly little.

Like an understanding of constitutional law or human genetics, knowledge of statistics is often seen by journalists as a valuable skill only after a salacious controversy breaks that requires such an understanding. This, though, is a reactive view of journalism. When reporters don’t understand constitutional rulings, genetic research, and fundamentals of statistics, many big stories go unbroken. We’re still feeling the repercussions of inadequate statistical and economics knowledge among reporters who covered the banking crisis (or didn’t).

Journalists can’t do everything, and it’s easy for media critics to enumerate all the things that modern reporters must be. I’m not even full of my own medicine: I’ve never taken a macroeconomics course, and I know that my reporting has at times been less substantive as a result.

But statistics is too pressing a global language for journalists to neglect. Statistically untrained journalists are watchdogs without olfactory cells; they’ll catch wrongdoing when it’s visible, but they lack the skill to sniff a sour deal.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , ,