When journalists are intimidated by math, why would we expect them to be any good at covering health and science?

[[{“fid”:”3781″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”423″,”width”:”640″,”style”:”width: 300px; height: 198px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Tim Falconer, for The Ryerson Review of Journalism

“I suck at math—that’s why I went into journalism” has been a humblebrag since before the invention of the humblebrag. I heard people chortle about their mathematical incompetence back when I was a student and I still hear them laughing today. My reaction has long been to roll my eyes, but I now realize silence just enables bad journalism.

I’m lucky: I flunked out after two years of mining engineering and then ended up doing what I really wanted. While the academic verbiage in some scientific studies can still trigger flashbacks of past struggles with differential equations, I never lost my fascination with science and technology. Good thing, too, because if I’ve learned anything over three decades as a freelance writer, it’s that most good stories need numbers.

Sure, you might be able to fashion a career free of data journalism and business reporting—though that would be your loss—but how can you be effective on the police beat if you don’t understand crime statistics? How can you discuss social trends if the numbers in demographic studies scare you? How can you write about hockey without a good grasp of salary caps and advanced stats? (Alas, the ability to read medical research on concussions will also come in handy.)

For generations, though, people who dropped math and science as soon as their high school would let them have chosen reporting as the ideal profession. The inevitable result is a lot of innumerate journalism. Newspapers are rife with number blunders—my guess is that screwed-up percentages are the most common errors, but that’s anecdote, not data—and reporters are terrible at covering polls, especially political ones (as Ronan O’Beirne explained in the Review last year.)

When journalists are intimidated by math, why would we expect them to be any good at covering health and science? 

To read the rest of this article, please go to the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s website, where it originally appeared.

Photo by Akash Kataruka, via Flickr.