Page 2 of 2   <      

Post stories that just don't add up

Are journalists really uncommonly bad with numbers?

"We are, more or less, an industry of English majors," said Allison Martell, a Canadian freelance writer who has written extensively about math and statistical literacy among journalists. "But there's a fear of math in the population in general. So it's natural we would find this among journalists, too."

In a fascinating study a decade ago when he was conducting research at the University of North Carolina, Maier evaluated math skills at the News & Observer in Raleigh. Its staff was given a math test and the majority demonstrated basic competency. But in focus groups among those same journalists, he said, "there was widespread unease, a lack of confidence" in handling numbers. "Clearly, they had the capabilities, but they had the self-perception that they couldn't handle math."

If the perception isn't reality, why are numerical errors so common?

"I think what's going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don't question it," Maier said. "With numbers, I think journalists tend to abdicate that scrutiny."

Martell agreed, explaining that those intimidated by math tend to "panic" when forced to deal with numbers.

"You don't really have to know that much about statistics to read a statistical paper critically," she said, adding that reporters often cite numbers and statistics touted in news releases without questioning their accuracy.

Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing usage of numbers in reporting and graphics, The Post should pay heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.

But above all, Post journalists should focus on the basics. Scrutinize every number. Double-check every percentage. Question every statistic. That's as basic as one, two, three.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at For daily updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company