Posted by: structureofnews | October 12, 2010

The Numbers Game

Imagine an ambitious young reporter came up to you and said:  “I love this journalism stuff, but I’m just not a words and meaning kind of person.  That’s not why I got into this business.”  That would be a quick way to get out of work.  Yet we tolerate the equivalent from journalists all the time who proudly proclaim that they’re not “numbers people.”  Their stories will be filled with interviews, quotes and ideas.  But no numbers to back them up.

This isn’t acceptable.  It wasn’t before, and especially isn’t in the age of data.

This comes to mind courtesy of a good post at Strange Attractor on numbers and journalism – or rather, the cultural mindsets that prevent us from embracing what should be a core part of our work.

We need to fix that, for a number of critical reasons.  The first is that we can’t even do our current job well if we don’t have a stronger understanding of numbers and how to use them to support, disprove, or test ideas. Anecdotes will only go so far to prove a story.  We need hard statistics.  If we want to write about, say, an increase in teen pregnancy, let’s go get the numbers.  Adjust them for population increases or decreases.  Make sure there’s statistical significance.  That sort of thing.  Otherwise, it’s a nice story – the kind you might tell over dinner or at a bar.  But that’s not journalism.

The second is that we’re entering an age where data is much more available, and access to information much more open. (That’s not to say we’ll get everything we want easily – only that more people can access more stuff than previously.)   If we don’t learn to master that data – how to get it, analyze it and understand it – we’re not going to be adding much value to the streams of information out there.  And other people – other more numerate people – will be eating our lunch.

The third, more nebulous but equally important, reason is that we have to be able to break the cultural mindsets that prevent us from thinking more broadly about journalism and what we do.  If we can’t think of ourselves as numbers people, we can’t conceive of data and data-driven information graphics and applications as journalism.  If we build an identity around narrative and pictures, we don’t spend time thinking about how the information we collect might become valuable in databases.  And so on.  We can’t think of what we can’t conceive of.

So how can we get more numerate?

We can study on our own.  There are any number of good books out there.   In schools, journalism education should make numeracy a core part of any curriculum.   We should teach everything from the idea of numbers to understanding statistics to basic probability to Excel to social science skills.  Is this number big or small?  Compared to what?  How likely or unlikely is this event? And so on.  Understanding the grammar of information graphics and charts should be a required skill as well.  Without all of this, it’s hard to navigate a world of data.

To be sure, not everyone will be a data and numbers maven, any more so than everyone will be a sparking wordsmith.   But all reporters understand the core ideas behind reporting, interviewing, writing and so on.  Some will be better at some skills than others, and that’s OK.

But no one should be proud that they’re not good at a key part of the job.


  1. It will be OK to add another post in the newsroom as data analysts – who are strong at statistics and focuses on playing with the numbers. It will be unrealistic to ask all journalists to have a good sense of numbers – even though it is not something to be proud of, I don’t think it is shameful as well. If there is one or two analysts to assist the writers on finding the right data and interpret the possible meanings behind it, it will make life much easier. – My argument is for general news, the ability of reading financial reports for Bloomberg reporters is another issue.

    • I agree – the range of skills journalists should know is broadening out very quickly, and it’s unrealistic for everyone to be good at everything. Ultimately, there will be areas of specialization in a newsroom, not just in beats/subject areas, but also in skills. So there will be people who are good at understanding finance; and others that are good at data visualization; and still others who have great contacts and sources.

      Certainly in many US newsrooms there already are people specializing in data analysis work – computer-assisted reporters. (Although that name sounds very archaic these days: Who doesn’t use a computer?)

      But everyone in the newsroom should be familiar with all the skill sets, or at least understand what can be done by a skilled person. And numeracy – ease and understanding of numbers and their role in the world – is about as core a skill set as there is.

    • The key point I took away from this post is that journalists need to better appreciate and understand numbers (data, stats, probability, etc) — not that they need to become math experts. It’s really more about a way of thinking than a having particular skill set.

      • Greg, I think it’s a bit of both – everyone needs to have a math mindset, if you like; but it would help if they also had at least basic skills. But if we can only have one, then definitely the former…. Reg

  2. Although there will surely be specialization, I don’t find it excusable for a reporter to be “bad with numbers.” For this isn’t just about numbers. It’s about a way of thinking carefully, about a process for truth-finding that relies on more than gut feelings and anecdotes. Instinct will tell you where the stories might be, but if there’s a way to test your theory you had better apply it.

    Journalists don’t generally have the training to do this, whereas other fields underwent stupendous leaps in truth-finding technique during the 20th century.

    I was at a computer-assisted reporting talk a few weeks ago. Mo Tamman from the WSJ talked about “putting an empirical spine into the story.”

    My response: shouldn’t ALL journalism be empirical?

    It’s fine to say, the techniques of modern stats do not apply to this story. It’s negligent to be unaware of what those techniques are. And yet some reporters are still proud of this.

    • Jonathan, absolutely. We need much more empiricism – especially now that we have more tools and data to do it. One of the exercises we did when teaching journalists in Bhutan was to ask them to list, beyond the people and documents they needed to prove a thesis, the number(s) they needed to have as well. It’s a very good way of focusing the brain. Reg

  3. […] The Numbers Game « (Re)Structuring Journalism Imagine an ambitious young reporter came up to you and said: “I love this journalism stuff, but I’m just not a words and meaning kind of person. That’s not why I got into this business.” That would be a quick way to get out of work. Yet we tolerate the equivalent from journalists all the time who proudly proclaim that they’re not “numbers people.” Their stories will be filled with interviews, quotes and ideas. But no numbers to back them up. (tags: numeracy statistics) […]

  4. A newspaper I visited in Delaware on a study tour employed a ‘data’ desk which was basically one journalist and one analyst who were responsible for two things

    1, Obtaining, compiling and pulling stories (and there are always great human stories to be had in data as well as hard hitting scoops)

    2, Crowdsourcing

    It was an interesting experiment as you basically had one person who could say, hmmm thats interesting and another who could refine the idea and think of the journalistic angles.

    Perhaps in the future these two people will become one. We can only hope.

    • Yes – we’d save half the budget! Just kidding.

      But it would be great if those skills were more broadly distributed in the newsroom.

  5. Ha… but if my memory serves me correctly. They were actually planning to start using the data they gathered in more commercial ways too. Interesting experiment.

  6. […] The Numbers GameA plea to increase numeracy amongst journalists. Amen to that! […]

  7. […] the problem really isn’t in the lack of software skills – as I’ve posted before, it’s mindset.  And the mindset pervades the whole industry.  As the CJR piece […]

  8. […] is, will we use them?  And just as importantly, how will we use them?  As I’ve noted before, it’s hard enough sometimes just to get reporters to embrace math; how are we going to get […]

  9. […] made the case several times before that journalists in general need to much more numerate to excel in the age of data; but […]

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