reporting with numbers

Health and Medicine


Numbers and statistics are often essential to stories about health, whether they help explain new research findings, well-being and healthy habits, or health care systems and responses to diseases and epidemics.

Medical data can be complex, which means it is easy to misconstrue in ways that are inaccurate, incomplete and harmful. The tips below should help you use numbers in ways that help people better understand what health risks their communities face or be well-informed about their own health.

Our goal here is not to impart medical knowledge, or to improve your medical or scientific literacy. There are many helpful resources designed with this purpose in mind, and we’ve included some of them at the end of this chapter. Instead, we focus on how to talk about health-related quantitative data.

To encourage this, we recommend following these guidelines in your stories:

1) Talk about where the number comes from

2) Discuss methods and evidence, and where they may fall short

3) Be selective about which numbers you use -- they should inform and clarify, not confuse or overwhelm

4) Discuss the limitations of available data

5) Provide the context behind statistics

6) Be transparent about uncertainty

In the recommendations below, we explore these guidelines in a few specific areas, including infectious disease reporting, medical research, and the communication of risks.

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