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GETTING THE NUMBERS RIGHT
Journalists need math skills to make sense of numbers the way they need language skills to make sense of words. Here are some resources to help you grapple with number-heavy stories.

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 terrific online 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 Ask Dr. Math at Drexel University, for questions that may be less time-sensitive.

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 to life.

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 free Math 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, Numbers 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 [2001]. 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 Web site.


Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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