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.