Journalism, by the numbers

Today, I am giving the students in my second-year journalism class a math test.

When I told the students in this lab – which is mostly a “journalism boot camp”, focusing on interview skills, background research, focusing a lead, writing a strong feature story with an emphasis on CP style – they were shocked.

“But we went into journalism because we aren’t any good at math,” one student said.

Indeed, many of us did, I answered. But journalism is not a refuge from math, numbers are everywhere. And if you’re wrong on your math in a story, it’s as detrimental to your credibility as misquoting someone, or being wrong on the basic facts of a story.

A good reporter can calculate a ratio, figure an average, locate a median and compute a percentage.

I didn’t come up with the idea of teaching (and testing) math in this course. Indeed, I have Professor David Tait to thank for that. But I embraced it eagerly when he suggested it.

Numeracy for journalists is as crucial as literacy. Imagine going to cover budget debates or tax increases at City Hall not know how to calculate averages or per cent?

And as more and more journalists are moving into data journalism, and more governments are opening up public data, we can’t afford to hide from numbers – and need to become comfortable with spreadsheets.

So I ask you:

If a candidate’s showing in an election poll goes from 15 per cent to 18 per cent, by what percentage has support for this candidate increased?

and:

If one out of 12 workers in the construction industry are involved in roofing, what is the percentage of roofers working in construction?

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5 thoughts on “Journalism, by the numbers

  1. As a young mathie with many young journo friends, I do get the rare call for help with the numbers. I have to add that Ontario students learn percentages in Grade 9, so there’s really no excuse. To be fully engaged in the public discourse, an understanding of polling statistics (confidence intervals, error and bias) are also important.

    And: 3%, 8.3%

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