When will media reporting on statistics improve?

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  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 22 October 2013
  • Copyright: Image appear courtesy of iStock Photo

Journalists tend to have a problem with statistics. Well, you may argue that almost everyone has a problem with statistics, but journalists tend to make it more noticeable. Let's, for instance, take a look at this New York Times' post that appeared in 2007, entitled: 51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse. This amazing headline included this reasoning from the results of the 2005 U.S. Census:

In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.

thumbnail image: When will media reporting on statistics improve?

Not even a month after that, the same news outlet had to publish a whole new article, discrediting that last piece. Apparently, the first writer included, in his amazing 51% of unmarried women statistic, all women from 15 years old and above. So, that “majority” of unmarried women include a lot of teenage women, with ages ranging from 15 to 17. It is worth mentioning that 90% of the girls in that particular group lived with their parents. And it is also worth noting that, at 15 years old, many of those girls do not even have a legal age to marry in some states within the U.S. But surely, this mistake is only made by interns or journalists with no experience at all, not by a veteran Times reporter who writes frequently about census data. Oh wait, that was indeed him.

This is certainly not a new topic. Many initiatives have been devoted to promote a more thorough training of journalists interested in using statistics. A collaboration of the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation resulted in the creation of the Data Journalism Handbook, a free, open source reference book for journalists and writers interested in reporting and writing about data. Many agencies and even news outlets are also participating in promoting more data expertise among journalists. In fact, the Royal Statistical Society, one of the world's most distinguished and renowned statistical societies, has an ongoing effort to raise awareness of this issue among reporters. The Society offers workshops for journalists, to help them explain the basic statistical issues in a way that the general public can easily understand. The RSS also provides science training and it even grants an award for statistical excellence in journalism, thus encouraging the correct presentation of statistics.

But even with all the combined efforts of the statistical community, the reason why I once again raise the topic of how poorly statistics are presented in the media is because new research suggests that things won't improve anytime soon. The problem is, apparently, that the formal education journalists retain does not enable them to appreciate a formal data analysis background. These skills are “optional advantages” that reporters may or may not have.

A new study published just recently, presents the results of a couple of surveys aimed to study how Data analysis and Statistics have been incorporated in Journalism programs. Sharon Dunwoody and Robert J. Griffin, the authors, interviewed chairs and directors of journalism schools both in 1997 and again in 2008. They asked mostly about the interest that these colleges had in incorporating topics on statistical thinking and reasoning, as well as the efforts that the programs have devoted to these areas. The disturbing part is that they found almost no progress made in the decade between the two measurements. Maybe even more worrying is the fact that many interviewees actually do mention a need for statistical literacy within the circle of journalism. It is not an issue that journalism schools have never heard of; it is simply one they are not really investing on. This is what the authors define as the "we-value-the-topic-but-do-not-provide-it gap".

The authors also mention the perils of such ignorance of statistical skills when reporting about data. They mention the infamous example of census data published by The New York Times that we just discussed. In their opinion, these problems arise precisely from the lack of formal training in statistics. Dunwoody and Griffin present two definitions from the literature, emphasizing a useful distinction between numerical literacy and statistical reasoning. They then provide useful recommendations on how teaching these topics to soon-to-be professional journalists could save us from some useless headlines.

This research may be the first clue of a systematic flaw in the way that journalists present data. Apparently, not only journalists have problems with statistics: their professors and their Alma Mater do too. The main issue is the journalists of tomorrow are still not being briefed about it.

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