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.