Math is not rocket science. You don't need to be
a nerd to improve your reporting. You just need to remember one
basic, journalistic question: "Does this make sense?"
Too often, when it comes to numbers, we just don't ask--because
we're not sure how to find out.
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.
Another frequent mistake journalists make is relying on raw numbers
instead of calculating the relationship between those numbers to
help viewers understand what they really mean. Yes, that means you
have to do the math to determine percentages, and percent change,
and rates [comparing numbers while holding a key variable, like
population, constant]. But the good news is there are dozens of
calculators to help you get the results right.
Keep a calculator with you at all times. You'll also want to have
other resources at your fingertips. Ask your local university for
the name of a good statistician, and consult with that person regularly
on confusing number stories. Consider using an online forum, like
Dr. Math at Drexel University, for questions that may be less
For television journalists, of course, it's not enough just to
"do the math." You have to make the results clear and
interesting to watch. Among your options: using
graphics to illustrate important numbers, and bringing paperwork
Other resources are available to improve your skills and boost
your confidence in dealing with numbers. In "News
by the Numbers," writing coach Jack Hart details a series
of essential steps every journalist needs to take when dealing with
number-heavy stories. The IRE's Sarah Cohen offers cheat sheets
and tips in a collection of handouts, "Danger!
Numbers in the Newsroom!"
Journalist Robert Niles has posted statistics
every writer should know. Included are valuable tips on how
to determine if the data you are looking at adds up to a story worth
reporting. Another tipsheet by Kathleen Woodruff Wickham of the
University of Mississippi, can help you understand the basics
of polling and includes an exercise to explain margin of error
and confidence level.
You can test your basic math skills by taking this interactive
quiz by Steve Doig (with credit to Phil Meyer). To learn the
basics of doing your own number crunching, visit Data
Crunching 101 by Canadian journalist Bill Doskoch. Or take the
for Journalists course at NewsU (registration required). You
could also do what WSMV-TV's Nancy Amons did a few years ago, and
teach yourself MS Access by using the software tutorial.
If you want to dig deeper, the IRE's Cohen has put together a book,
in the Newsroom, that's for sale through the IRE Web site. The
late Victor Cohn's classic guidebook, News and Numbers, has
been updated by Lewis Cope . Some excerpts are online at FACSNET.
For skill drills and formulas, check the new book Math Tools
for Journalists by Kathleen Woodruff Wickham. For a comprehensive
bibliography on numeracy, check the PowerReporting