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Journalists need remedial maths

Huge factual errors occur every day in newspapers, broadcasting and on the web because journalists just don’t do maths. The abysmal level of achievement in maths in schools can be blamed, but that is not an excuse.

Those of us involved in training young journalists must take part of the blame. We spend a lot of time on writing, accuracy in quotes, balance and so on but little to ensure out students can handle numbers.

I am guilty. I make some references when teaching news writing but not enough. One of the examples I give is from a shopping guide which described a table mat as being 20 sq cm (most coasters are going to be 50 sq cm or more) intending to say that it was 20cm by 20cm (400 sq cm).

That is an example of the way in which so many fail to visualise numbers, to have any feeling for what they should be. The problem in journalism training is that we have too little time and so many things to do but somehow we need to find time for basic maths.

An example of the mistakes which make the media look silly comes in the Guardian’s corrections and clarifications column today. It reads:

Typographical confusion during the editing process resulted in an assertion that a rock needs to have “a mass of about 5,1020kg for gravity to give it the nice round planet-y sort of shape the IAU says a planet ought to have” (When a rock turns out to be a planet, G2 page 36, August 24). The figure given by the International Astronomical Union is 5 x 1020.

Perhaps it was a typographical error, but whoever proof read the page, passed it for press or otherwise scanned it should have spotted the mistake. Even with the comma in the right place we would have been looking at a planet about the size of a container lorry.

Last week Craig Silverman at his Regret the Error blog reached number 4,637 in his Fuzzy numbers series. It was an article in the American Prospect which put the cost of the war in Iraq at between $100 million and $200 million. It should have been $100 billion to $200 billion.

A good journalist should have know instinctively that those numbers were wrong, in the way in which we recognise that we have got our tenses mixed-up.

Many of the young people who want to become journalists say they have always loved writing and want to use that skill to communicate with people. How I long to hear one substitute “maths” for “writing”.

I am going to add a complete session on maths for journalists to the news writing module I am preparing at the moment. I know it is not enough but it should serve to increase awareness of the pitfalls among the students.

The American journalism site, Investigative Reporters and Editors, has a maths test for journalists. I am seriously thinking that something like it should be given to all applicants for journalism courses.

Comments on this post and suggestions are very welcome. It is something we need to debate.


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  1. Telegraph Blogs: Technology: Shane Richmond: August 2006: Are you a Digital Immigrant? says

    […] Shane Richmond Blog Home Shane Richmond More Technology blogs Shane has been News Editor of Telegraph.co.uk since December 2005. Having first joined the Telegraph in 1998, he left for a brief stint as Editor of an internet start-up before returning in 2001. He writes about media, technology and blogging. Technorati Profile RSS feed for this blog Print this page Are you a Digital Immigrant?Posted by Shane Richmond at 29 Aug 06 18:56  Tags: Tech, Web, Journalism, Maths, MicrosoftI’ve been forgetting what day it is all day today. The bank holiday has left me thinking that it’s Monday. While this is irritating now, if I can sustain it it will pay off come the end of the week, when Thursday turns out to have been Friday all along.Anyway, from journalists who don’t know what day it is to journalists who can’t add up. As Andrew Grant-Adamson points out on his Wordblog, many journalists have woefully poor maths skills.Andrew writes: ” The abysmal level of achievement in maths in schools can be blamed, but that is not an excuse.”And later: “Many of the young people who want to become journalists say they have always loved writing and want to use that skill to communicate with people. How I long to hear one substitute ‘maths’ for ‘writing’.”I know some very intelligent people who simply cannot get to grips with numbers, in many cases because of bad experiences when trying to learn maths at school.I wonder whether our habit of dividing people into ‘words’ or ‘numbers’ people, often at a very early age, has a bearing on this.Personally, I’m not bad at maths. However, as someone who took GCSEs rather than O-levels, I’m probably a product of the dumbed-down education system. Still, I console myself with the fact that, as pass-rates rise, I can begin claiming that GCSEs were more difficult “in my day”.But while the younger generation struggles with numeracy, the older generation stands accused of technical illiteracy.A senior Microsoft executive last week complained that fuddy-duddy employers who restrict internet access in the office are failing to understand that young people work naturally in a connected world.Anne Kirah, Microsoft Senior Design Anthropologist, said: “These kids are saying: forget it! I don’t want to work with you. I don’t want to work at a place where I can’t be freely online during the day.”Pesky kids.Brilliantly, Kirah divides society into “digital immigrants”, who weren’t born into a digital lifestyle and have found themselves struggling to assimilate, and “digital natives”, to whom a connected lifestyle comes naturally.I’m not sure which camp I belong I’m in. I’ve grown up in a computerised world but I didn’t start using the web until I was at university. An 18-year-old starting work today may well have lived with the internet since he learned to read.I guess that makes me a ‘digital immigrant’.What Kirah is saying is that if more and more companies apply web filtering at work, the ‘natives’ will start getting restless.And if they really will refuse work rather than have their 9 to 5 net access curtailed, then we will soon be assailed by disgruntled 20-somethings complaining about ‘bloody digital immigrants, taking our jobs’.It’s an interesting article. Apologies for shoehorning in the lame joke. Roll on Thursday.[Hat tip to TechCrunch UK for the Microsoft article.]Posted by Shane Richmond at 29 Aug 06 18:56Post to: del.icio.usDiggNewsvineNowPublicRedditComments [0]Back to top […]

  2. Michael Kenward says

    An understanding of mathematics would be great, but many journalists don’t even understand basic arithmetic.

    The reason why this is more important than you suggest is that you need to know a little bit about numbers – which is what arithmetic is all about – if you are to understand and write about risk. If a few more writers understood this area we would have fewer daft health-scare stories.

    Actually, bring an understanding of numbers to some newspapers, the Daily Mail comes to mind, and they would go out of business. There’d be nothing for them to write about.

    If you are interested in an attempt to understand what is going on, check out the Messenger project.

    Stats is another interesting site, although the focus is on the abuse of statistics rather than incompetence.