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Addressing journalistic innumeracy and math phobia: A sequence of resources to sharpen your mind

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U.S. data explorer (U.S. Census Bureau)U.S. data explorer (U.S. Census Bureau)U.S. data explorer (U.S. Census Bureau)
(U.S. Census Bureau)

The notion that journalists are math phobic and prone to error when working with numbers is an age-old cliché, embodied in the quip that, for many in the media, the plural of anecdote is data.

These notions remain firmly in place despite significant pushes by journalism schools and media organizations. For example, the media organization Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) has long sought to improve data literacy skills among journalists. While there has been a significant rise in data journalism — as exemplified by news outlets such as Quartz, Vox and FiveThirtyEight, as well as blogs and news verticals like “Wonkblog” and “The Upshot,” which make statistics and empirical thinking part of their core product — many journalists continue to hesitate when stories require that they tackle complicated numbers.

However, whether it’s reading a government-produced spreadsheet, calculating percentage changes or judging the results of complex academic studies, journalists often must confront the world of math, like it or not. For perspective on longstanding, fundamental media issues, read “Why Math Matters,” by Chip Scanlan at the Poynter Institute.

The following are some helpful resources for sharpening skills and deepening knowledge:

Given the increasing complexity of public policy issues and the rise of massive data of all sorts, journalists have significant incentive to improve their basic math skills — long an important area of competency but now essential.

To get even deeper training, see the online course “Introduction to Statistics: Inference,” from U.C. Berkeley professors, which explores “statistical ideas and methods commonly used to make valid conclusions based on data from random samples.” There are also a number of free online statistics tutorials available, including one from Stat Trek and another from Experiment Resources. Stat Trek also offer a glossary that provides definitions of common statistical terms. Another useful resource is “Harnessing the Power of Statistics,” a chapter in The New Precision Journalism.

Keywords: training, data journalism, news

    Writer: | Last updated: March 11, 2015


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    Laura Laing Mar 17, 2015 13:36

    I love this list, but I find it a bit heady for the math phobic. As a former math teacher and a current journalist, I’m keenly aware of how this anxiety can (literally) prevent further learning. That’s why I wrote Math for Writers: http://www.amazon.com/Math-Writers-Better-Story-Published/dp/099144650X.

    I know it’s not proper to toot my own horn, but I did want to share that unlike many of the books in the wonderful list above, Math for Writers is designed specifically for those who are math phobic. I go back to the basics, using relatable examples that are common in ordinary journalism.

    My hope is that Math for Writers can serve as a launch pad for journalists who then decide to delve more deeply into higher-level statistics and mathematical analysis. But to get there, most folks need to start a little more slowly.

    David Blomgren Mar 19, 2015 13:36

    Someone should redo this and title it “Addressing political innumeracy and math phobia in Washington,DC”

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