Numbers

Journalism schools should encourage 'more probing' around numbers, Getstats campaign says

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A campaign launched by the Royal Statistical Society has proposed a "a dozen rules of thumb for journalists" to understand numbers.

The Getstats campaign, set up by the professional body for statisticians and data analysts and led by former journalist David Walker, is asking for journalism schools to ensure numeracy is part of a reporter's training.

Walker recognises that some journalism courses teach numeracy but is calling for statistics to be taught more widely, encouraging behaviour such as "more probing" around the numbers, appreciating "who cooked up" a figure, and "clear graphics" in data visualisations.

He has proposed 12 points, outlined in more detail below, which would cover the "minimal level of understanding" that a journalist should attain, he told Journalism.co.uk.

Walker explained that the 12 points are a starting point and would welcome feedback from journalism lecturers to help shape the minimum standards of an understanding of numbers.

Last week Andy Trotter, chief constable of the British Transport Police, called for numeracy training to be introduced in journalism courses. He told Journalism.co.uk his "constant frustration" is fuelled by the incorrect reporting of crime and other police statistics.

Walker welcomed Trotter's call for better numeracy training for journalists but warned that the police could also "do their bit" to help reporters understand police figures better, suggesting that the police could "put in some resources into journalism education".

Data reporter at the Guardian James Ball also said last week, in a Journalism.co.uk feature on how to correctly report numbers in news, that it is not acceptable for journalists to say "I don't do numbers".

"We would never regard it as okay for a reporter to say 'I never take notes' or to laugh and say 'I am always leaving details of my off the record sources around the office' and we have to, I think, move to making it a bit less okay to be bad at numbers," he said.

Along with trying to encourage better "number hygiene" for journalists who, in turn, pass on the understanding to the public, the Getstats campaign also has a "programme of action in parliament" and is encouraging a rethink of the school curriculum, Walker said.

Number hygiene for journalists - check list:
  1. Buyer beware. Who cooked this figure up; what are their credentials; are they selling something?
  2. If the story comes from a sample, is it a fair representation of the wider group?
  3. What exactly did the pollsters/survey researchers ask? What the public understands may not match what the researcher thinks.
  4. What kind of average?
  5. With a sample, check the margin of error, the plus or minus 3 per cent figure. With a league table is like being compared with like? 
  6. One change in the numbers does not mean a trend. Blips happen often.
  7. Beware spurious connections that don't amount to 'a causes b'.
  8. Some events are rare and stories should say so.
  9. Comparisons can make risk intelligible: the risk of dying being operated on under a general anaesthetic is on average the same as the risk being killed while travelling 60 miles on a motorbike.
  10. 'Could be as high as' points to an extreme; better to say 'unlikely to be greater than'.
  11. State the frequency of an event in relation to a set number of people (1,000).
  12. Use graphics as long as they are clear and tell the story that's in the text.

The 12 "number hygiene" rules explained in full are at this link.

David Walker can be contacted by email: d.walker [at] rss.org.uk

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