Why Journalists Need to Understand Statistics
“There is a base level of understanding of statistics that journalists need to have because it’s just too easy to be misled. It’s just way too easy to be misled. There are studies that look good and they’re just crap.
To some extent as journalists—even a statistically informed journalist like me—we’re dependent on our sources. I don’t have the sophistication to evaluate every study out there statistically, but I have people that I can go to and say, ‘Is this any good?’ There is a level of savvy that you need to have to know what kind of questions to ask and to be able to make sense of what your sources say.
Some studies are so bad they fail a quick sniff test; you read them and immediately say, ‘I don’t think so.’ For example, when you’ve got some study that makes outrageous claims with a very small number of participants, you know, don’t waste your time. But sometimes you need to look more closely to see the problems, and it takes a bit more sophisticated knowledge to see them. So if you’re covering anything with studies, there is a base level of statistics that you need to have.”
Freelance journalist Julie Rehmeyer received the 2015 Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award from the American Statistical Association. Photographed at Victrola Coffee Roasters, Seattle, August 2015. Read her award-winning articles here.