Numbers count: the importance of numeracy for journalists

Genis, Amelia (2001)

Thesis (MPhil) -- Stellenbosch University, 2001.

Bibliography

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Few news subjects or events can be comprehensively covered in the media without numbers being used. Indeed, most reports are essentially 'number stories', or could be improved through the judicious use of numbers. Despite this there are frequent complaints about poor levels of numeracy among journalists. Although numbers are fundamental to virtually everything they write, the most superficial review of South African newspapers indicates that most encounters between journalists and numbers of any sort are uncomfortable, to say the least. Reporters shy away from using numbers, and frequently resort to vague comments such as "many", "more", "worse" or "better". When reports do include numbers, they often don't make sense, largely because journalists are unable to do simple calculations and have little understanding of concepts such as the size of the world's population, a hectare, or a square kilometer. They frequently use numbers to lend weight to their facts without having the numerical skills to question whether the figures are correct. Numeracy is not the ability to solve complicated mathematical problems or remember and use a mass of complicated axioms and formulas; it's a practical life skill. For journalists it is the ability to understand the numbers they encounter in everyday life - percentages, exchange rates, very large and small amounts - and the ability to ask intelligent questions about these numbers before presenting them meaningfully in their reports. This thesis is not a compendium of all the mathematical formulas a journalist could ever need. It is a catalogue of the errors that are frequently made, particularly in newspapers, and suggestions to improve number usage. It will hopefully also serve to make journalists aware of the potential of numbers to improve reporting and increase accuracy. This thesis emphasises the importance of basic numeracy for all journalists, primarily by discussing the basic numerical skills without which they cannot do their job properly, but also by noting the concerns of experienced journalists, mathematicians, statisticians and educators about innumeracy in the media. Although the contents of this thesis also apply to magazine, radio and television journalists, it is primarily aimed at their counterparts at South Africa's daily and weekly newspapers. I hope the information contained herein is of use to journalists and journalism students; that it will open their eyes to the possibility of improving number usage and thereby reporting, serve as encouragement to brush up their numerical skills, and help to shed light on the numbers which surround them and which they use so readily.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Min nuusonderwerpe of -gebeure kan in beriggewing tot hul reg kom sonder dat enige getalle gebruik word. Trouens, die meeste berigte is in wese 'syferstories', of kan verbeter word deur meer sinvolle gebruik van syfers. Tog is daar vele klagtes oor joemaliste se gebrekkige syfervaardigheid. Ten spyte van die ingeworteldheid van getalle in haas alles wat hulle skryf, toon selfs die mees oppervlakkige ondersoek na syfergebruik in Suid-Afrikaanse koerante joemaliste se ongemaklike omgang met die meeste syfers. Hulle is skugter om syfers te gebruik, en verlaat hulle dikwels op vae kommentaar soos "baie", "meer", "erger" of "beter". Indien hulle syfers gebruik, maak die syfers dikwels nie sin nie: meermale omdat joemaliste nie basiese berekeninge rondom persentasies en statistiek kan doen nie, en min begrip het vir algemene groothede soos die wereldbevolking, 'n hektaar of 'n vierkante kilometer. Hulle sal dikwels enige syfer gebruik omdat hulle meen dit verleen gewig aan hul feite en omdat hulle nie die syfervaardigheid het om dit te bevraagteken nie. Syfervaardigheid is nie die vermoe om suiwer wiskunde te doen of 'n magdom stellings en formules te onthou en gebruik nie; dis 'n praktiese lewensvaardigheid, die vermoe om die syferprobleme wat die daaglikse roetine oplewer - persentasies, wisselkoerse, baie groot en klein getalle- te verstaan en te hanteer. Hierdie tesis is nie 'n versameling van alle berekeninge wat joemaliste ooit sal nodig kry nie; maar veel eerder 'n beskrywing van die potensiaal van syfers om verslaggewing te verbeter en joemaliste te help om ag te slaan op die getalle rondom hulle en die wat hulle in hul berigte gebruik. Die doel van die tesis is om die belangrikheid van 'n basiese syfervaardigheid vir alle joemaliste te beklemtoon, veral die basiese syfervaardighede waarsonder joemaliste nie die verslaggewingtaak behoorlik kan aanpak nie, te bespreek, en ook om ervare joemaliste, wiskundiges, statistici en opvoeders se kommer oor joemaliste se gebrek aan syfervaardigheid op te teken. Hoewel alles wat in die tesis vervat is, ewe veel van toepassing is op tydskrif-, radio- en televisiejoemaliste, val die klem hoofsaaklik op hul ewekniee by Suid-Afrikaanse dag- en weekblaaie. Ek hoop die inligting hierin vervat sal van nut wees vir praktiserende joemaliste en joemalistiekstudente om hulle bewus te maak van die moontlikhede wat bestaan om syfergebruik, en uiteindelik verslaggewing, te verbeter en as aanmoediging dien om hul syfervaardigheid op te skerp.

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