The bogeyman is made of numbers

Journalists and math don’t get along well. Most journalists are afraid of numbers. Formula-scared high school students flock to journalism school so that they can get as far away from math as they can. No one enters journalism because of a profound love of mathematics. Could there be a bigger cliché about journalism?

Truth: I am really good at math. Or at least I was in high school. The top grades that got me into j-school? They came from advanced math classes, not English and creative writing classes (though I did okay in those classes, too).

Every once in a while a teacher or guest lecturer asks my class how many of us are good at math, and every time, I watch as maybe one or two nervous hands gets raised in addition to mine.

But it doesn’t have to be that way and, frankly, it shouldn’t be. Journalists deal with math on a daily basis—whether it’s figuring out statistics, dealing with dates or making sure payroll got your hours right—so it’s not really good enough to just shrug it off and plead mathematical ignorance.

Deborah Potter at Advancing the Story wrote recently about numbers and news, and insisted that math skills are as crucial for journalists as language skills. She wrote:

“One of the most common mistakes when it comes to dealing with numbers is failing to make sure those numbers add up. This can lead to stories about polls which sampled more than 100 percent of respondents, or budgets that are larger than the sum of their parts. All it takes is a minute with a calculator to avoid these kinds of errors–and the “you people are stupid” calls they often generate.”

Craig Silverman, author of Regret The Error, wrote a column last year for the Columbia Journalism Review that dealt with journalists’ fear of numbers. “Journalists deal with numbers every single day, and yet so many of us willingly profess ignorance or fear when faced with simple arithmetic,” he wrote. “This fear combines with a lack of training to rank numerical errors among the most common mistakes made by journalists.”

Silverman also listed the five top reasons that numerical errors slip into print:

1)    The journalist or editor miscalculates a figure
2)    The journalist mishears a number and doesn’t double-check its accuracy
3)    A source accidentally provides an incorrect figure, and the journalist doesn’t double-check its accuracy
4)    A source intentionally provides an incorrect figure, and the journalist doesn’t double-check its accuracy
5)    The journalist re-reports a mistake made by another media outlet.

(Noticing a common theme here?)

I’m not asking you to pull a Good Will Hunting here, but just to apply the same accuracy principles you apply to your writing and reporting to all of the numbers you deal with. You wouldn’t take a quote from a source at face value if it seemed fishy, so why blindly accept that a figure is accurate?

Both Potter and Silverman list a number of resources, tip-sheets and online courses that are available for journalists that wish to expand their math skills, including a free News U course.

So give it a shot, and don’t fall victim to the cliché. Your work will be better for it and, maybe, you can avoid a shout-out on Silverman’s blog.