In the 12 years I’ve taught at the University of Idaho, students have struggled with exercises to apply simple arithmetic to news stories: percentage change, budgets and property taxes. It’s a common complaint among journalism educators nationwide.

Today, Craig Silver of the Poynter Institute reports on an effort by the Royal Statistical Society in Great Britain to sharpen the mathematical skills of journalists.  Called “Getstats,” the campaign offers 12 “rules of thumb” for reporters who wish to properly use numbers in news stories.

Silver asked the British group’s director, David Walker, for advice on how to become more comfortable with numbers.  He responded:

Don’t take a number for granted. Ask who generated it, whether they had an interest. Ask about who did the sample and with what degree of accuracy the sample represents a wider population. We’re not expecting journalists to be math stars, rather to apply to numbers the same techniques and approaches they do to other areas of relative ignorance — ask questions and go to trusted sources to establish what’s right.”

Read more about how to get a better handle on numerical stories here.

How comfortable are UI journalism students in using numbers? Do our classes give students enough practice in numerical problem solving? Is this a task for JAMM or the Math Department?