Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Journalists and numbers

As is obvious at this point, I spend some of my time explaining numbers to the public via our fourth estate friends. On that subject there is an interesting post just put up at the Institute for Analytical Journalism: More insights into how and why journos can't deal with data

For the record I don't agree with the premise there that says "journalists face difficulties in dealing with statistics". . I'm pretty sure most journalists deal with numbers better than most.  What the problem is that most stories journalists are tasked to write must fit into an order of magnitude less space than what academics would use for similar material.  Academic lawyers may be the worst, check out the footnotes of a legal journal article which may be longer than the article itself.  Not the type of stuff that newspapers ever have space for and let's not even talk about television news segments.  

But the post points to some research showing that the public does better than journalists are taught when it comes to understanding some basic numbers.  If I understand it, it is saying the public grasps things like percentages and may only get confused when the same information is expressed as it would be explained verbally.

A perfect case in point comes to mind as I read this blurb just out coincidentally from the PBT on the most recent real estate metrics for the region.  Check out how much quantitative information is described in just a couple hundred words. It's kind of amazing when you parse it.   Sales are down, but the decline is lower than previous declines.(a declining decline)  Got that? Trends for higher value homes vs. others are discussed.   Some month over month numbers reported in there.  Year over year numbers as well.  Then there are this month's year over year numbers compared to last months year over year numbers.   Average prices down, but median prices up....  and county by county trends that are all over the place.  Even I am not quite sure what to make of it all and I've read it a couple times..  Maybe a chart or two would get the important concepts across a little more directly. 

and just in passing what may be the most important point: "The foreclosure rate was down 5 percent in the five-county region last month".   Foreclosure rate down?  In the climate all around is that not the headline?


Anonymous MH said...

If I can't mock them for their statistical skills, I can still amuse myself by making over-literal interpretations of headlines.

"Oldest known hominid suggests humans didn't evolve from apes"

Read more:

Thursday, October 01, 2009 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

They changed it. And I was going to send it to "Best of the Web."

Thursday, October 01, 2009 7:55:00 PM  

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