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Get over your fear – and even get friendly with numbers

Craig Silverman's Regret the Business ErrorImagine telling an editor that it’s too confusing for you to have to keep track of people’s names and titles for your story. I know, you’re thinking that would never happen.

Yet journalists do basically the same thing all the time when it comes to math and numbers.

“It’s okay if you walk up to an editor and say, ‘I can’t deal with these numbers; you have to make the copy editor deal with it,’” says Sarah Cohen, the author of the book,  “Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.” “But it’s not okay to say, ‘I can’t bring myself to go up and ask someone how old they are.’”

Cohen is admittedly a rare breed. She was an economist before becoming a journalist, and she eventually served as database editor for The Washington Post. She’s now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University with a focus on computational journalism. Cohen isn’t scared of numbers, but she is afraid of what happens to good reporting when a journalist mangles the math or simply refuses to engage with numbers.

Numerical errors can occur for a variety of reasons — I compiled a quick list here – but Cohen says one of the larger causes is the fear of numbers and math that seems to pervade newsrooms.

Math and numbers are a constant in journalism. It’s more difficult to find a piece of reporting that doesn’t include numbers than to locate one that does. We handle numbers on a daily basis, which means we have to get comfortable with them. Cohen has a suggestion for how to get started.

Today’s Tip: “Give yourself a sense of scale,” she says. “That way, when you look at a number, you will know if it’s big or small, and if it’s significant in some way. Then you suddenly have a way to do your story.”

Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor at Duke University

Sarah Cohen

And to get it right.

You can gain a sense of scale by familiarizing yourself with the key numbers related to your beat, industry, community, etc.

“If you’re covering an industry like, say, retailing then get a sense of what makes a big company. How big is Walmart?” she says. “Understand what’s big and small in the industry and what the average salaries and wages are. What’s a high-paying or low-paying job? What do people consider a high unemployment rate or low unemployment rate?”

You can apply those examples to any beat or area of coverage; the key is to familiarize yourself to the point where you can spot trends and mistakes. For example, if you know the scale, you are less likely to confuse millions and billions of dollars — a common error in business stories.

A little bit of time spent with analyst reports, industry overviews and government reports can put you in good stead to avoid error — and spot a scoop down the line.

Do you have other tips for avoiding numerical errors? Please share them in the comments.

In Career tips, Tools.

Comments (2)

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  1. Linda Austin says:

    Don’t miss these great resources that Craig references in his link above to a CJR article he wrote:

    “There are some excellent, free online guides for journalists. This online presentation from CubReporters.org provides a solid overview of percentages, crowd counts, and means and medians, among other information….Robert Niles has a page dedicated to math for journalists.

    There are also a few books written specifically for journalists. The gold standard has for a long time been ‘News and Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields.’ You should also look at ‘Math Tools for Journalists’ and ‘Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.'”

  2. Ask my husband and daughters. They’re all great at math.

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