Expert Commentary

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

2015 roundup of useful materials and tip sheets that can help journalists improve their mathematical reasoning skills and reduce errors across a range of subjects.

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

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