News Reporting, Data Illiteracy, and the Failure of Our 'Elite' Educational System

I've discussed before how our political discourse shouldn't be the sole purview of English majors, that some topics might gain from being covered by those who have some mathematical training (quite a few science journalists do have this, and are quite good at reporting 'quantitative' stories). A reader sends us a link to this column by Washington Post ombudsman* Andrew Alexander about the problem of mathematical illiteracy among journalists. I often get some pushback on the whole English major thing, so it was refreshing to read this:

"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."

Obviously, we need people who are good writers, but increasingly, many stories are increasingly data-driven and need reporters who can analyze large amounts of quantitative data. So I was a little stunned ('little stunned' is why we shouldn't get rid of the English majors....) when I read this:

Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered.

Why is this shocking? Because we are long past the days where, at a major paper like The Washington Post, someone works his way up from the mailroom to being a reporter. Most, if not all of the reporters, graduated from 'very selective' colleges. That reporters require remedial math training, while not especially flattering for the profession of journalism, is a serious indictment of our elite educational institutions. Put simply, how were they allowed to graduate?

If graduates of these schools are to be granted prerogatives, at the very least, they can have the goods to back that up. A meritocracy is supposed to be based on merit.

*Betcha didn't know that ombudsman comes from the old Norse, umbodhsmadhr, which means deputy or plenipotentiary. Now you do.

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Twenty years ago, it was the apparent pride that her fellow journalism school students (and in some cases, faculty) had in their ignorance of math and science that drove my wife out of the program.

By the bug guy (not verified) on 03 Dec 2010 #permalink

When I was biology department chair, I delighted in using numbers during chair's meetings. The chemistry, physics, and math chairs would perk up to analyze my figures for mistakes, while the other chairs would go into a state of shock or suspended animation.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 03 Dec 2010 #permalink

From Linguistics, that strange place between Maths and English.

Ombudsman: First use 1959, taken from Swedish ombudsman, literally meaning "commission man" (specifically, in reference to the office of 'justitieombudsmannen', which hears and investigates complaints by individuals against abuses of the state); the Swedish is cognate with Old Norse umboðsmaðr, from umboð "commission" (from um- "around" + boð "command") + maðr "man."

I wouldn't say that 'deputy' is quite the right thing, but plenipotentiary and umboðsmaðr are pretty much calques.

(That funny looking 6/d like thing, (ð), is what you've written as 'dh'. It's the sound starting the English words 'then', 'the', and 'this'.)

Mathematical literacy would only be important if accuracy were one of their concerns. Since I've been on-site for a few incidents that were later reported on the news I can certify that this is not commonly one of their criteria.

I suppose that occasionally stories are processed to be more politically acceptable, but in the cases that I witnessed there were, instead, processed to be more entertaining. With total disregard to accuracy (other than of the "well, it really *did* happen, I just selected what part of what happened to show you" kind).

By Charles Hixson (not verified) on 03 Dec 2010 #permalink

There is some hope in the world. The fancy, I guess elite, if you believe US News, liberal arts college I graduated from, recently redid their graduation requirements for the first time since God was an undergrad. You will now have to take either stats or formal logic and a lab science to graduate.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 04 Dec 2010 #permalink

It really shows up in business reporting. I don't think the typical business journalist can read a balance sheet or a 10Q report. That makes them horribly credulous and much of their reporting worthless.

Now, are they actually English majors, or are they Journalism majors being euphemistically called English majors? Because, at least at BU, COM stood for "College of Optional Math", because nobody in any of the Communications programs was required to take college-level math. I'm not sure how widespread that is, but I wouldn't be surprised if journalism majors having to take math classes were the exception rather than the rule.