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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Understanding statistics: A journalist's guide



As databases of raw information become more common and increasingly available to the public, understanding and effectively using statistics is becoming more important than ever for journalists. Despite the convenience of hiding behind the phrase “I can’t do math; I’m a writer,” the time has come for journalists to challenge the notion that their biggest enemy is numbers, and prove that not all media fudges when it comes to figures.

“No working journalist can afford to be numerically illiterate, any more than he or she can afford to write sloppy, grammatically incorrect prose,” says Steve Harrison in his journalism.co.uk post “How to: Get to grips with numbers as a journalist.”

As conveyors of information, journalists must be able to understand the significance and impact of numbers, including budgets and other quantitative reports, not only to spot inconsistencies and expose wrongdoings, but to interpret figures for audiences. This requires a basic understanding of statistical terminology, such as being aware of what average is being used and the difference between different types of statistics.

“Statistical terms used in research studies: A primer for journalists” provides just that – a primer – that every reporter should have before attempting to write anything involving numbers in a coherent way. The Journalist’s Resource post explains everything from the difference between correlation and causation to sample size and standard deviation – all terms journalists should be familiar with.

But beyond that, communicators have to present information in a relevant way, a point stressed in part two of Harrison’s “How To”, which emphasizes how to make information easily understood by news consumers.

Various organizations have already begun to realize the importance of the relationship between news people and numbers, and have developed “toolboxes” full of resources for journalists. Among the most comprehensive is the Society for Professional Journalists' Writing With Numbers resource page, which includes links to everything from statistical guides to conversion calculators, to other resource posts with basic training and tips for journalists writing with numbers.

Others offer courses designed to teach journalists how to effectively use figures, such as Poynter News University’s Math for Journalists: Help with Numbers and the Knight Center’s Math for Journalists webinar taught last month (be sure to check our website for future webinars in math skills for journalists.)

Recently, data journalism has gained steam and increasingly, news organizations are looking for reporters who are able to draw information from databases and present it in visually appealing, compelling ways. There are a slew of new data visualization tools out there, many of them free and easy to use. Matt Stiles, data journalist at NPR and formerly of the Texas Tribune, maintains a blog, thedailyviz.com, where he uses data visualization programs to create interactive maps, word clouds, charts and graphs to effectively tell stories. But to use these tools and seamlessly incorporate them into their stories, journalists must first understand the numbers they are looking at and explain what they will mean to readers.



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