Keep the main stage simple

By Joelle Dahm

Many journalists recognize the need for understanding statistics and looking not only into the results, but also the methodologies of new findings, official claims and ‘known facts.’ An example of this is Grist fellow Clayton Aldern’s “Is the rest of the world’s climate action saving the U.S. billions of dollars?

Regardless of the sensationalist title, Aldern actually critically engages with the report he gets his information from. The report by the Institute for Policy Integrity discusses who carries the social and economic cost of climate change. It concludes that under certain prediction the U.S. might benefit immensely from international climate action efforts. Aldern questions the actual impact of the numbers, considering that climate predictions tend to be rather vague and the monetary value based on carbon is heavily disputed.

He explains the methodology of the report, showing his understanding of the subject matter, while taking the reader step by step through his reasoning. This is great for transparency, but very inefficient for conveying stories that matter to the reader and have actual impact.

Statistics are a tool that can be used to find more in depth stories and to question information. However, in most cases it is supposed to be behind the scenes.

The article is a great example for one major issue in using statistics and data in journalism – making the results the only story. Often, articles that make statistics and methodology the main focus provide a quick opportunity to convey information but they lack relatability and contextualization.

Statistics are a tool that can be used to find more in depth stories and to question information. However, in most cases it is supposed to be behind the scenes. If numbers and methodologies are on the main stage in an article, they often render it hard to digest. In Aldern’s case, his criticism of the methodology could have been the start of a deeper investigation on why the U.S. does not engage in more climate action, a look at the social costs, or even a discussion on the price of carbon.

It is good that journalists hold studies accountable, but doing it in a way that makes it relatable to readers is what the journalistic profession should be.

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