Take a number: tools for getting the numbers straight

Bob Ortega

Robert OrtegaI went into journalism because I’m good with words, not with numbers.

Yes, we’ve noticed. It’s a sad fact that many reporters’ eyes glaze over when they’re forced to look at anything involving math or statistics, whether it’s a company’s balance sheet, a candidate’s claims about the impact of the carbon tax, or anything to do with the economy.

But today, almost regardless of beat, a journalist needs to understand the basics of ratios, percentages, averages, reducing fractions, polling and statistics. (Journalists covering politics, business and economics, health issues and many other specialized beats need a higher degree of numeracy and economic literacy – but that will be a topic for a future column.)

Fortunately, there are some very useful tools out there to help the mathematically challenged. I’ve divided these into two groups: Tools for learning stuff you really should know, and tools for getting the right answer on deadline. (I’ve also included links to a couple of tests in case you want to see how your math skills stack up.)

Tools for learning:

In this group, the Freedom Forum’s terrific No Train, No Gain website offers a set of downloadable PDF files meant to be used as deadline reference tools by the math-impaired, covering , , reducing fractions, basic equations, terminology and math style. The site also offers timed math drills for practice. These are helpful for anyone not fully confident in any of these areas.

That same site offers a useful, brief explanation of polling and basic statistical techniques, and a long list of other numeracy resources worth exploring.  

Robert Niles, a California-based journalist and web editor, offers a very clear, simple guide to understanding statistics at RobertNiles.com. He includes help understanding the differences between mean and median, and how to calculate each one; understanding per capita and rate increases and decreases; standard deviation and normal distribution; margins of error and confidence intervals; the relevance of sample sizes; data analysis (meaning, are these numbers worth writing about?); and finding statistical data on the Internet. Many of the statistics websites listed focus on the United States, of course, but the list also includes several useful Canadian sites.

Tools for solving problems on deadline:

When you just want a site that will do the math for you, there’s also help at hand.

Megaconverter offers a very cool set of conversion and calculation modules to convert almost any type of weight, measures and units between metric , imperial and other systems, and within means of measures. (Want to know now many seconds old you are? This is the place.)

SensibleUnits, meanwhile, can help you express numbers in everyday terms, by translating what it terms boring units into objects readers can relate to. For example, if you type in “200,000 square feet,” it will tell you that this area is the equivalent of ten ice-hockey rinks or 3.4 American football fields.  

WeirdConverter, meanwhile, offers more off-the-wall comparisons. It will tell you that a 290-metre-tall building is the height of 24 T-rexes stacked atop one another, or calculate the volume of an A380 airliner in kegs of beer.

Math .com, while not intended for journalists, offers a useful set of online converters and calculator tools, including a Canadian mortgage calculator, and other tax, interest and savings calculators.

 WebMath, another site intended for students but equally helpful for journalists, has hundreds of pre-solved or instant calculations for everything from basic math problems such as converting fractions to decimals and vice versa, to plotting, geometry, calculus and trigonometry problems.

NewsEngin offers a percent change calculator; just enter the numbers and it automatically calculates the percentage increase or decrease.

The Bank of Canada has a very useful inflation calculator, which uses Canadian consumer-price-index data from 1914 to the present, with a two-month delay for current cost figures.

CNN offers a quick, easy currency converter.

Martindale’s calculators on-line center offers links to a mind-boggling array of specialized calculators. (Scroll down from the top of the page.) These include calculators for compound interest and rate-of-return rates , country-specific tax and benefit rates (including for Canada) and depreciation – but also for more exotic matters from cooking measurements and alcohol percentages to fuel consumption for various engines and vehicles, lottery/gambling/sports betting odds, and many, many others.   

How Far Is It? will calculate the distance between any major cities in the world.

I’m not sure this is exactly a math tool as such, but it’s still both interesting and useful. WordCounter will count and rank the most frequently used words in any text. See what buzzwords Harper and Dion used most frequently in their last speeches.

Aneki offers rankings and statistics (including reams of top-ten lists) for hundreds of topics, countries, cities, individuals etc. It includes academic, economic, environmental, social, technological and miscellaneous rankings. What country has the most obese people? The most Miss Universes? The highest recycling rate? What cities are the cleanest? Most polluted? All here, with sources noted. 

Math Tests:

Finally, if you want to see whether your numeracy is up to snuff, try the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ math test, or another math test for journalists, with clickable answers, designed by a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Further reading:

Want more? The American Press Institute web page Writing With Numbers has links to lots more useful sites.

I’d also like to recommend two excellent books on this topic: For a thorough examination of the basics, get Math Tools for Journalists, by Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi and former American Society of Newspaper Editors fellow at Gannett News Service.  And Philip Meyer’s superb Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods, offers a clear, cogent guide to analyzing data and applying (and understanding) statistical methods. First published in 1967, this book was last updated in 2002. 

Have you run across other useful sites or tools? Any thoughts on journalists’ numeracy or lack thereof? Please comment.

Bob Ortega is a former Wall Street Journal reporter. He is currently a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and editor of the J-Source Tools for Reporters section.