Statistics in Journalism: Time to do the math

By: Courtney Johnson

Now more than ever the role of a Journalist is expanding from the standard storytelling, investigating and fact-checking functions to a much more advanced analytical reporting that requires knowledge and experience in interpreting numbers – especially statistics.

Statistics are already a large part of news and news coverage – some of the biggest headlines of this year have to do with new studies revealing or confirming a new statistic – especially when it comes to health, government or politics.  If Journalists do not know now to accurately analyze and interpret these statistics or any data sets they come across – they will not be able to break stories that could be beneficial to the public at large.

In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Justin D. Martin cites the life-saving story of Chicago Tribune reporter John Crewdson, who while on a flight witnessed a passenger having a medical emergency and was inspired by this to look into the data regarding the amount of in-flight deaths on U.S. aircrafts – he determined that a large percentage of passengers died even when there were doctors on the flight because planes weren’t equipped with circulatory drugs or electronic defibrillators.  Crewdson was able to take his research a step further to calculate what it would cost to ensure that every U.S. airplane has defibrillators and basic medical kits – $56 Million over 10 years and about $4,100 per plane.  He also went on to calculate that this would only require a 2 cent hike on every airline ticket sold in the U.S.

This data-reporting relied heavily on data analysis and statistics and is the reason that most U.S. airlines have these medical supplies on board currently.  Without the proper knowledge of statistics and understanding what certain numbers and data convey, journalists aren’t able to break stories or offer resolutions for any problems that they may find.  Crewdson’s work further proves that Journalists are behind the curve if they are not well-versed in looking at the numbers that make up the stories they report.

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