More Numerate: Numbers & Evidence for News Writers

About This Work

Journalists rival teachers in how much they can educate the citizenry, although some consumers of the news view many journalists as being ill-informed, under-informing, or providing an unbalanced representation of scientific issues that have quantitative bases (e.g., evolution and global warming). Schools of journalism have mounted few systematic ventures to improve students' understandings of numbers. Some of our prior research showed that journalists and budding journalists do not adequately appreciate the potential for the catalyzing effects of even a single, critical, statistic in changing citizens' (or their own) views on a social policy, and that journalism instructors find their students' quantitative skills notably insufficient.

We attempted to ameliorate such problems and enhance reporters' numeric and analytic skills with a curricular module that highlighted evidence and scientific thinking-- and that included elements from our Numerically Driven Inferencing (NDI) paradigm's methods *. The "Numbers, News, and Evidence" module that we created engaged five sections of a first-year graduate journalism newswriting course, such that each section received the module for a week in the place of its normal coursework. The module involved approximately 4.5 hours of classroom instruction, a considerable amount of homework, and several (e.g., pre-, mid- and final-) assessments.

Although the curriculum required less than 5 hours of in-class instruction, its results are both noteworthy and encouraging. After the curriculum, the students in the experimental condition improved their performance and scored higher than a control group on two central kinds of numeracy measures: on estimation accuracy and on mathematical competence in arithmetic problem solving, simple data analyses, and compounding. It appears that the students also changed their attitudes regarding numerical information, including a more critical assessment of their own skills. Evidence also suggested that after the curriculum, students tended to write more extensively about quantities that are relevant to particular social issues, and to write more extensive critiques of another person's assertions about statistics. Finally, a post-module assessment showed that at least 80% of the students believed that the following year's student cohort should receive a numeracy module something like what they received.

Our findings indicate that even a rather short and broadly conceptual numeracy curriculum can yield results that would seem desirable to journalists, their instructors, and the readers that they serve. The data, as well as feedback received from the participants and their regular instructors, suggest that a longer curriculum would be required to reinforce many of the module's elements--particularly regarding how to better deploy estimation strategies (including how to better disconfirm, critique, and analyze initial estimation hypotheses)--and how to integrate one's improving numeracy skills into one's news writing. We hope that a multi-week module might be implemented in the future.

Dissemination efforts have focused largely on moving toward directly informing those in the journalism education community of our results, and on generating this web site to further inform journalists, journalism educators, and the general populace.

* A typical NDI method is EPIC (in which people Estimate, Prefer, Incorporate-feedback, and Change). See our publications for more information on NDI.