Why you should ignore all news stories involving numbers

[Updated: See below]

I guess it’s only appropriate that immediately after blogging that MIT student’s thesis, I would run across this. For a long time on this weblog, I have complained about story after story in which it is so obvious the reporter has no clue how to interpret anything dealing with numbers. I got so fed up with a recent example in the Wall Street Journal, that I blogged it (and here) and was later asked to write about the confusion for the current issue of Folio: magazine (the article apparently is not online, but I’ll post it later). Now, I understand this problem a little better.

Here is a story in the Northwestern University student paper reporting the possibility Medill School of Journalism will follow other J-schools around the country that have dropped statistics course requirements or have offered a “dumbed down” version of the course in the Journalism School.


A common problem among many Medill students is that because they often don’t understand how statistics relates to their field of choice, they put off taking the course. Michelle Edgar, a fifth-year Medill and School of Music double major, left her statistics requirement until her second-to-last quarter at NU and calls her Introduction to Statisticsclass a “complete waste of time.” “I don’t see how any of the information is relevant to journalism or how it could be applied to
writing a story,” she said.

That’s fine Michelle, but if you become a reporter, please ask your editor to not assign you any stories that use scientific or academic surveys, opinion research or have anything to do with trends that are revealed through any form of measurement. (via: Romenesko)

Updated: A few months after this was posted, on April 4, 2005, I received the following e-mail from Michelle. I am happy to provide it for future “google” searchers who may land here.:

“I came across your posting on rexblog.com, referring to a comment I made to a Northwestern Daily reporter late last year. Just wanted to let you know that Andrea Chang needs to work on her reporting skills after taking my quotes out of context. I didn’t think anything much about the mistake until coming across your blog. A common problem among many Medill students is that because they often don’t understand how statistics relates to their field of choice, they put off taking the course. However, this wasn’t the case for me. What she didn’t include was that since I’m the first at Medill to complete a five-year double-major program, combiningjournalism and piano performance along with a business minor, I simply left all my distribution requirements (statistics being one of them) until my final year.

The reason I referred to the statistics class as a “complete waste of time” was rather because I felt the course itself was relatively simple and more importantly, did not relate to journalism. I would have much rather preferred a course instructing students on how to incorporate statistics into an article involving “scientific or academic surveys, opinion research or anything to do with trends that are revealed through any form of measurement,” as your blog mentions. Medill, along with many journalismschools, should at least take this into account. This class would presumably help students with actual scenarios in which students would have to apply their problem-solving skills and statistics backgrounds. I really don’t mean to presume, but I would really appreciate it if you could take my name out of your blog since both you and Andrea have taken my quotes out of context. Thank you for understanding. Looking forward to hearing from you.”

I’m glad to let her set the record straight.

2 thoughts on “Why you should ignore all news stories involving numbers

  1. First, a confession: I never took a statistics course, although I did take a number of science courses (and found them helpful on a number of occasions, ma belle Michelle). Stats would have helped on any number of occasions, I never took an econ course, either, and know that I am woefully ignoant on this subject as well.

    And yes, it is within my power of choice to rectify both these lacks at one or more conveniently located institutions.

    I have often preached the value of a wide-ranging acquaintance with subjects fundamental to our culture, such as science, history and art, to those engaged in communications – which is most everyone at some level or the other. It’s arrogant – and self-limiting – to suppose that knowledge will never be useful.

  2. I was listening to KCBS 740 AM (All news radio station in the San Francisco area) this morning and heard the reporters talking to someone who was saying that Americans have gotten heavier and taller in the last 40 years.

    The reporters asked whether the numbers were means or medians, whether the distribution had shifted, whether it was top heavy, etc. I was really impressed.

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