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Statistical Literacy and Journalism: The Road Less Traveled

1 September 2017 38 views No Comment

Trevor ButterworthTrevor Butterworth is executive director of Sense About Science USA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for scientific and statistical literacy and communication. He is also a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science. Butterworth is a former journalist who has written for The New Yorker online, Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He attended Trinity College Dublin, Georgetown, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


My first issue as editor of the college newspaper was met with a needling sneer from a rival publication, which, perhaps softened by a horizon of almost three decades, went something like this: “Trinity News is all stats; doesn’t Trevor Butterworth know that journalism is about words?”

In retrospect, the review is amusingly prophetic and precisely the kind of detail that makes for a perfect introduction—or lede as one would say in journalese—to a just-so story about how a journalist became evangelical about the necessity and vitality of statistics to his profession. But at the time, I was stung. One didn’t become a writer to write about numbers.

Despite Joseph Pulitzer’s conviction—advanced in his 1904 plea for the professionalization of journalism (The College of Journalism)—that there was “romance, human interest, humor, and fascinating revelations” in statistics—the truth of which should be discernible to the properly trained journalist—the American press did not, in the main, trust its audience with numbers, in part because it did not trust its journalists to report them correctly.

As Jeffrey Dvorkin noted in 2004 during his tenure as National Public Radio’s ombudsman:

One of the rarely admitted secrets about journalists is that many of us are functional “innumerates”—another way of saying “mathematically illiterate.” Oh sure, we can add and subtract reasonably well, but with some exceptions, journalists generally don’t know, understand, or are interested in numbers. As for more complex subjects such as statistics and probability, well … many journalists would be hard pressed to tell the difference between “average” and “mean.”

That Dvorkin could conceive of innumeracy as a secret only “rarely admitted” is delightfully ironic; many journalists have made similar claims. As one journalism professor once put it to me, innumeracy was an open wound for everyone to see, allowing all manner of rotten claims to fester and go unchecked. It was evident in the howlers that any mathematically minded reader could spot the “massive” (percentage) increases that came from one per thousand turning into two per thousand, the replacement of precise quantification with portentous adjectives that turned laughable risks into certain causalities, the magic number that turned a discrete example into a trend (three).

Sense About Science USA is a nonprofit organization that advocates for an evidence-based approach to science and technology and for clinical trial transparency.

The original Sense About Science (SAS)—begun in the United Kingdom—established guiding principles for promoting scientific understanding and defending scientific integrity in the United Kingdom and Europe. A separate, legal entity to SAS UK, Sense about Science USA is committed to improving communication, transparency, and the use of evidence in the sciences.

To be fair, journalists had periodically rebelled into numeracy. In 1989, The Washington Post’s Victor Cohn published a gem-like book, News and Numbers, with the rallying cry that, “We can be better reporters if we understand how the best statisticians—the best figurers—figure.”

In the 1970s, “precision journalism” turned the news media into pollsters (thereby requiring stories about the margin of error every electoral season), while the rise of computer-assisted reporting revealed how coding and data could sometimes deftly, sometimes naively, reveal new ‘truths’ about society (foreshadowing the rise of data science and data journalism). Pulitzer would surely have been delighted to see the prize bearing his name finally going to stories that appeared to find the truth in statistics, if not necessarily with statistics.

But these were minority pursuits. In the main, the conclusions of James Tankard and Paul Ryan, academics who studied how the media covered science in the 1970s and ’80s, held true: “Most journalists seem unable to judge whether numbers are really meaningful or accurate. Consequently, they either trust all figures or they trust none. And they tend to focus exclusively on a report writer’s conclusions, while ignoring specific numbers and data collection techniques.”

I once belonged to that cohort that swung between avoidance and credulity, until one day—faced with a vertiginous plunge into unemployment—I hesitantly accepted an offer to take over a moribund project called STATS.

Intellectually, I had been shaped by a preoccupation with language—both literary criticism and philosophy of language—and, ironically, it was close textual reading—the kind one did in the manner of I.A. Richards or ‘deconstruction’ in English class—that led me to think about the role numbers were playing in a story. I’m not suggesting this was particularly deep or required signing up to a theory of metaphysics; one simply imagined numbers as agents in a story and then tried to figure out what they were doing behind all those adjectives and elisions and bold proclamations. “When you say there is an increased risk of boils from eating bananas, how many boils and how many bananas are you talking about?” That sort of thing. The secret was understanding you didn’t need to be able to figure out the answer to these questions yourself; that was something a mathematician or a statistician could do for you.

This is hardly revelatory—and, of course, it only marks a first basecamp in the ascent toward understanding statistics and the role statistics plays in so many facets of knowledge. But almost 15 years since I began, tentatively, asking these questions, much has changed in journalism and society. A generation marinated in the cultural prestige and economic value of data has entered journalism—and it increasingly understands that if journalism is to hold this world accountable, words are not enough.

STATS, too, has changed dramatically to respond to this demand for statistical insight (which is evident in the number of journalists using our free statistical help service and the responses from those who attend our workshops). If we take the next logical step and develop the right visualized and interactive tools to help these journalists “see” statistical concepts in action in the kinds of stories they typically cover, then this generation will change journalism—accomplishing what Joseph Pulitzer imagined a century ago in ways he could not have imagined.

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