Telling stories with stats – writing for the media

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Statistics and journalism are not always seen as complementary skills but there are huge benefits for all if statisticians and journalists talk more to each other - and even better if they learn more about each others' skillsets. The RSS 2016 professional development session titled 'How to write for a public audience' was aimed at statisticians interested in how to write about statistics in newspapers and magazines.

According to Robert Matthews, a science journalist and author and Significance magazine editorial board member, there are many reasons for a statistician to engage with the media. In delivering a professional development lecture for statisticians interested in writing for a public audience, he pointed out many advantages: it helps attract interest in your work and can help you become the expert ‘go to’ person for the media to consult on a particular topic.

To write successfully for a public audience, according to Matthews, you must put yourself in the mindset of your audience, which has crucial differences with an academic audience. Writing should be ‘punchy’ and easy to follow.

No subject area has as many things to write about than statistics, says Robert. It interests general readers. He outlines five key components that have to be in a story that will resonate with the media and general public under the acronym TRUTH, which stands for:

  • Topicality – the story should be current
  • Relevant – it should include examples that make it relevant to people’s lives
  • Unusual – it should say something the reader might not already know
  • Trouble – it should present a challenge – and then a solution
  • Human – it should contain real-life examples to make it relevant.

Robert gave examples of ‘types’ of articles that statisticians are in a good position to write. How should we act in the face of uncertainty (using probability)? Can we trust the experts (inference, replication etc)? How reliable are climate models (chaos, bias/variance)? Is that ‘amazing’ world record too amazing (extreme value theory)? Does big data = big blunders? Is that diagnostic/forensic test reliable? Can polls can be more reliable?

Getting started is the tough bit, Robert says. But it’s a process. First you have to draw people in with, for example, mental imagery that they can relate to or starting with a ‘killer fact’. Then you have to ‘tell a story’. Use analogies, but steer clear of too much jargon. Jargon, he says, is exclusive. It’s good to slip in a few terms as it lets people into your world, but if you do use, always explain. It’s worth considering putting explanation in a ‘box’ – editors like them because they break up the text. Keep algebra to a minimum – although some newspapers love them because again it makes the page look interesting. Keep words simple and sentences short. 

When wrapping things up in a piece, try to loop back to the statements you made at the start. Or you could have a call to action, such as ‘we plan to…’.

Robert advises that budding writers first submit ideas to Significance magazine, of which he is on the editorial board. Other potential avenues include The American Scientist, BBC Focus magazine, FT, Handelsblatt, The Times, New York Times or Wall Street Journal Europe. But be aware that the less knowledgeable the audience, the harder it is to write for. You will also have less control of the final product as editors’ priorities are to get people to read.

He also advises that you always read the publication before pitching an idea to check whether they’ve published anything similar recently. Make sure it fits the TRUTH agenda. Get a deadline and word count from the editor. If you aren’t going to make it, make sure you let them know. And never write more than 5% over the word count.

 

 

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