Journalists should be 'math people' too

By Morgan Eichensehr on November 14, 2013

Some journalism students at the University of Maryland claimed to not be ‘math people,’ but said they recognized the importance of developing a basic understanding of math concepts that could help them as future reporters.

The University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism requires all journalism majors to take an applied statistics course and to also pass a tailored math exam during their studies. Passing the math exam with a 100 percent is a requirement to pass the JOUR 201 course which all journalism undergraduates must take.

Sophomore journalism and marketing double major, Zoe Sagalow, said she thought it was important for journalists to be able to do basic arithmetic and have a good understanding of statistics. She said these skills could really help reporters when covering business, crime, or politics stories.

“I think having to get a 100 percent is consistent with 100 percent accuracy,” said Sagalow of the JOUR 201 math exam. “I think it’s reasonable.”

Sophomore journalism major, Katie Wilhelm said the same. She said she supported the purpose of the math exam requirement, even if the idea of not passing the JOUR 201 class because of it was a bit “daunting.”

An article published in the Columbia Journalism Review called for journalists to “embrace statistics” and to acknowledge the importance of having decent math skills in this field.

“Numbers are the true global language,” read the article, written by Justin Martin. “Journalists who can amass and interpret data can cover more of the world in a short time than reporters who just spill prose based on what they see.”

Sophomore electrical engineering and computer science double major, Patrick McQuay said that math is crucial to his field of study and that he believes that journalists need to be taking math classes at UMD as well.

“I think it’s important that they understand some math,” said McQuay. “Especially statistics, because that seems to be such a large part of journalism.”

Max Frankel, a former executive editor for the New York Times complained, according to a Poynter article, that most schools of journalism did not stress the importance of learning statistics to their students.

“Deploying numbers skillfully is as important to communication as deploying verbs, but you won’t find many media practicing that philosophy,” said Frankel, according to Poynter.

McQuay also said he often doesn’t trust the numbers he sees in the news and assumes they are often “twisted” by the media. Sagalow agreed, saying that she thought statistics are often presented inaccurately in the news.

Indeed, the Business Insider pointed to a report by Jeff Leek of ‘Simply Statistics’ last year that outlined how media companies like Fox News tailor the way they present data to consumers in order to manipulate interpretations of the numbers involved in a news story. Leek said that the data wasn’t necessarily wrong, just misrepresented.

Sagalow said that learning math skills could definitely help journalism students in their future reporting.

“My goal is to learn to understand math and business concepts myself and then be able to write news stories in a way that makes that stuff make sense to ordinary people,” she said.

I am a sophomore journalism student at University of Maryland with a minor in Middle Eastern studies. I love writing and sharing information with others through my stories. My personal goal is to learn at least one new thing every single day. My hobbies include running, watching lots of movies,dancing, acting, eating, singing, and spending lots of time in Washington D.C. I love news and hope to be a foreign correspondent someday.

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