Numbers and statistics are everywhere in the news.Whether producing stories about the economy, science, health, or politics, media organizations often believe that incorporating data makes their reporting more accessible and credible. But as a growing body of research demonstrates, this is not always the case. Though it’s easy to assume that numbers speak for themselves, using them without context can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. When audiences encounter number-heavy stories but lack sufficient information to interpret the data being shared with them, they may feel confused, share bad information or become suspicious and distrustful of the media as an institution – the exact opposite of what journalists hope for when reporting with numbers.
How can you avoid this? Making sure you’re using the right numbers, with the right context, with enough tools for your audience to think critically about the numbers and statistics they encounter. Our goal here is not to provide a primer on statistics or the principles of quantitative reasoning. Instead, this guide is intended to help you translate your reporting and knowledge so that your audience understands the reporting before them, too.
This guide is based on a set of key questions that journalists and media organizations need to ask themselves before deciding to tell stories with numbers — derived from years of collaborative research by Knology and the PBS NewsHour:
- What does the number mean, and what doesn’t it mean? What does it tell us, and what doesn’t it tell us?
- Who came up with the number, and how did they calculate it?
- Is the number accurate? Is there an expert consensus around it? If not, how can I help audiences understand the lack of precision in the data I’m sharing?
- Do I need to use the number? If so, what kinds of contextual information and quantitative reasoning skills do people need to understand the number?
- How can I make sure the number makes my reporting more accessible and not less?
To make sense of numbers, people need to know where they come from – that is, about how statistics are calculated, as well as the methods, processes, uncertainties and assumptions surrounding them. Sometimes, news stories don’t explain how data or statistics are reached because of lack of time or space, or an assumption that the audience will be turned off by more numbers. A key goal of this guide is to challenge and change those norms. We’ve applied the questions above to specific coverage areas – namely, health, science, business and the economy, and politics — as well as to how stories are framed generally through data visualization and headlines. We flesh out our key principles and walk through specific examples illustrating the best and worst practices in quantitative reporting. Taking the form of simple, straightforward “do this” / “don’t do this” constructions, these examples provide quick yet effective solutions for many of the common numbers-related problems confronting journalists today.
We understand that reporters usually face time or space constraints and that those who appear on videos or radio can have limited opportunities to incorporate details or graphics. Hopefully, the information we are sharing in this guide will help you deal with the vast amount of numbers thrown your way on a daily basis, whether you’re writing an article, a script for TV or radio, a headline or designing an infographic. If you have any questions about what we have written or if you’d like advice on a particular project, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please help the project team learn how this content could be improved by answering some brief questions.
Take the survey.
- Next Section
- Headline Tips (Headlines)