“I don’t do maths”: how j-schools teach statistics to journalists

stats Image by Simon Cunningham

Image by Simon Cunningham

Teresa Jolley reports from a conference for teaching statistics to journalism students

I am not a great ‘numbers’ person, but even I was surprised by the attitudes that journalism lecturers at the Statistics in Journalism conference reported in their students.

‘I don’t do numbers’ and ‘I hate maths’ were depressingly common expressions, perhaps unsurprisingly. People wanting to study journalism enjoy the use of language and rarely expect that numbers will be vital to the stories they are telling.

So those responsible for journalism education have a tricky task. A bit like providing a sweet covering to a nasty-tasting tablet, it was said that lecturers need to be adept at finding ingenious ways to teach a practical and relevant use of numbers without ever mentioning the M (maths) or S (statistics) words.

Storytelling and science

Professor Kevin McConway, Head of Statistics at Open University, gave the journalists in the room something to think about from a different perspective.

Kevin has a special interest in helping scientists overcome their distrust of the media, working with them to give them an understanding of what journalists do, and how the skills of storytelling and engaging an audience can, when used knowledgeably, help more people understand the importance of scientific work and its implications.

His talk suggested that one positive way forward was to encourage collaboration between students of sciences and humanities.

At Falmouth, for example, MA Broadcast Journalism students work on special news days with MSc Environmental Science students from Exeter University.

In this trial, journalism students help science students write engaging articles to deadline, and journalism students benefit from a greater understanding of what scientists do.

Data journalism skills

Good data journalism requires knowledge and understanding of working with data: where to collect it from, what it means, who created it, how to clean it, structure it, store and access it, and then turn it into something visually pleasing and accurate.

The range of demands can be intimidating for some journalists. Not only do they need to get over their fear of numbers, they need to learn how to wrangle data into shape and tell a story with it, to deadline.

There was a suggestion that The Guardian – an undisputed leader in data journalism – is able to invest the time and skills required to develop this capability because of it is funded by a trust. Other news organisations, as profit making businesses, don’t have the time and money to invest in training journalists how to use data effectively and create good journalism with numbers – although the BBC now has its own head of statistics.

The MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University and the MA in Interactive Journalism at City University both focus on developing data journalism skills, but the course leaders for both, Paul Bradshaw and Jonathan Hewett, are the first to recognise there is a limit to how much can be taught in a one-year course.

All this leaves me wondering what can be done to support the development of the skills required to create good data journalism that is not only well produced, but valued for its engaging and accurate portrayal of complexity.

It may be counter-productive to force journalists to become data experts, scientists or mathematicians, so creating the space to enable collaboration between data, maths/statistics and journalism may provide the best opportunity to incubate a new set of collaborative skills between specialists in each of these fields.

The argument is that this won’t happen in existing news organisations because of financial restraints, and it won’t happen in education due to time restraints.

We need to find another way to develop these skills which will help us all regain faith and belief in good journalism, educating and informing, and holding organisations to account in the public interest.

5 thoughts on ““I don’t do maths”: how j-schools teach statistics to journalists

  1. lizhannaford

    Sounds like a really interesting and timely conference, Teresa. Thanks for the summary and your comments. I wonder if part of the solution is to attract numerate students to journalism courses in the first place. I don’t think it is widely understood that there is a role for numeracy in newsrooms; journalism is seen as a humanities subject and so tends to attract students who “don’t do maths.” How could we change that?
    I also like your suggestions for a more cross-discipline approach in universities. I’m keen to try to create a hacks/hackers style environment where the CS students and social scientist statisticians hang out with the journos and see what they can learn from each other.

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