Source: Cleveland.com

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?

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Jason Wilson

Feb 12, 2012@ 01:48:43Math is pretty Relative. We can do math, and I doubt its really of not doing math, its more of a matter of not needing to do math. How much math is really necessary when you’re reporting breaking news?

Anthony Kuipers

Feb 13, 2012@ 17:20:14I don’t think journalists need to be math experts to recognize if a numerical figure seems unusual in the story they are covering. They just need to research their subject enough to know what numbers are noteworthy. I am not great with numbers, but I think researching my topic can help me overcome my math deficiencies.

Kenton Bird

Feb 13, 2012@ 19:11:14@Jason: Most journalists don’t need to understand higher math, just arithmetic. To quote John Irby in the introduction to Chapter 13 of our textbook (p. 166): “Reporters can’t be afraid of data and numbers, or back away from them. They are the foundation of quality reporting.”

Kenton Bird

Feb 13, 2012@ 19:13:08@Anthony: You’re right – part of using numbers in stories is just common sense. Reporters who cover business, government and sports are most likely to need to be savvy with data, but everyone should be ask questions about the source and accuracy of a particular number.

Kelsey Hart

Feb 21, 2012@ 07:47:03I think more than being a matter of not knowing enough math, it is a matter of knowing when to use it. For me, I tend to avoid numbers in my story because I don’t want to crowd the story with numbers and confuse readers when I can explain it a different way.

Andrew Deskins

May 11, 2012@ 22:21:29The check list rings true with a lot of things I remember from taking statistics in high school. I actually like using numbers in my stories, but at times it is difficult to balance how many numbers to include because you certainly don’t want to crowd the facts with unnecessary digits.