This is exactly what journalism training should do says Jairo Lugo-Ocando, an associate professor in journalism studies at Leeds University. He has recently produced a piercing critique of statistics in journalism (with An Nguyen from Bournemouth University) in an academic journal.
Jairo explained to us what compelled them to scrutinise this area. ‘To me, it’s worrying that the UK’s journalism education in statistics is really behind other countries, even though it’s such an important part of journalism today,’ he says.
‘As an example, none of the professional accrediting bodies in Britain such as the NCTJ, BJTC and PTC require statistical elements in training. Meanwhile in the United States, the AEJMC has mandatory statistics in any program that wants to be accredited by them,’ he explains.
Before he came to the UK, Jairo has worked as a journalist in Latin America and the USA. So his perspective on how British journalists are trained is interesting. The UK’s single honours academic courses in journalism only began in the 1980s and 1990s. Previous to this, reporters would learn the trade with local papers before working their way up through the media industry.
In contrast, the leading journalism schools in the United States were founded at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, Jairo says ‘they push a more academic teaching of journalism rather than training. Joseph Pulitzer was involved in setting up the schools of journalism in the Universities of Missouri and Columbia, and they sought to make the courses very academic from the beginning, which we are now catching up with in Britain.’
Developing critical thinking of statistics
Statistics is not completely absent from journalism degrees in the UK. Some courses now include data journalism modules and the RSS has previously visited universities as part of the RSS Science Journalism Programme. But Jairo is arguing that statistical training should be more than just an optional elective. ‘What the RSS is doing is brilliant, but this needs to be an integral part of the curriculum. I’m not saying that all journalism programmes must have a module in stats, but they can include it in an investigative reporting or data journalism module.’
He goes on, ‘what we found by interviewing journalists was a lack of expertise in this area. There are many examples of good practice, but also many of bad practice in statistics, and the reason for this inconsistency is the lack of an underlying spine in teaching statistics in journalism.’
The way Jairo describes the importance of this reflects the concepts journalists are taught to interrogate the veracity of any source of information. ‘It’s important to develop critical thinking of the statistics, so that journalists understand that a statistic is not necessarily a fact. Also a statistic can be interpreted in different ways in different contexts, so the journalist needs to critically consider what a specific statistic means,’ he says.
One area of reporting Jairo has recently been researching is crime statistics and knife crime in particular. His paper looked at how the statistics are handled as part of a wider narrative that underlies crime reporting. ‘To me it was very surprising to see the degree of disparity in the use of crime statistics. These statistics have come in for criticism in the past, but it’s amazing that journalists, whose job it is to be critical, are often very uncritical of this.’
‘Statistics are such an important element in formulating or justifying public policy,’ he says. ‘The role of journalism is to scrutinise public policy, so if we are not critical with our handling of the statistics, we will probably swallow what the official sources tell us.’
Number phobia and the students who thought they left stats behind
An obvious obstacle to instilling statistical thinking in journalism students is the fact that many of them will have believed they left maths behind in school. Jairo admits that when he introduces his stats class to students they are initially reluctant.
This has parallels with the experience of a former president of RSS, John Kingman. He was one of the first lecturers in statistics to bring the subject into the academic social sciences in the 1960s. His recollection of students reacting with dread at the introduction of statistics (now a permanent fixture in social science) suggests that journalism needs to go through a similar period of angst.
So how does Jairo curate his lessons in statistics? ‘It’s very accessible and engaged with practical work. The students learn to produce a story from the statistics, or use them to inform a story, or they are used to contextualise a story. So statistics are a very powerful tool that can bring a reality check to many areas.’
He says, ‘one of the things I do with my students is to ask them to identify the type of statistical test they would need to carry out for a specific issue. So for example, if they want to analyse the pay gap between women and men, should they use a chi-square or not? They then have to learn how to communicate those statistics in a way that they become accessible for their audience.’
Jairo also emphasises that the popularity of data journalism is not the silver bullet here. ‘It’s a fashion, although a very useful fashion because some of what can be done makes it a very important tool. But a point I made in my article with An Nguyen, is that we cannot confuse knowledge of statistics with data journalism – they are two different things.’
He continues, ‘they are closely related and can depend on each other, but the problem is that some people can jump on the bandwagon without first learning that basics of statistics. So students may be able to create beautifully coloured maps of population growth, but they can’t tell you the difference between inferential and descriptive statistics.’
The dwindling amount of time journalists have to do their job
The reason why poor statistics make it into the news media is not always down to a lack of statistical rigour on the journalist’s part. The pressure placed on a journalist’s time is now a major undermining factor, and this can be why statistics from the PR industry ends up republished fully intact.
Jairo acknowledges this, ‘journalists are overworked, under paid and overstretched and this is the reality now. Whereas before journalists had time to explore a number of stories better, now they are asked to do more stories in less time because the newsroom has less resources.’ But how does he propose to break this vicious cycle? He says ‘by increasing the ability and skills of journalists to manage and think critically about the statistics they are presented with.'
‘These are the kind of decisions that have to be made under the immense pressure of working on a daily newspaper or in a 24 hour news broadcaster. Journalists need the knowledge to make those decisions in the moment, but we aren’t giving that knowledge to the students,’ he says.
He reiterates that British journalism has to catch up with its academic equivalent across the Atlantic. As he illustrates, ‘could you imagine a journalist covering baseball in the US with no knowledge of statistics? Yet here, journalists covering cricket have no statistical training.’