Data Literacy in the Media (or lack thereof)

I was an investigative reporter at The New York Times for 10 years (2007-2016) and, being a lifelong, proud, card-carrying math geek, gained a reputation for being one of the few reporters who could easily detect data BS among politicians, scientists, and other media outlets, and did so in fields ranging from the National Football League (concussions) to child psychiatry (epidemiology, drug prescriptions). As a member of DLP's advisory board I'm hoping to spearhead efforts to bring better data literacy to the media through web materials, seminars and what-not. As consumers of news media, what do you think are the most pressing issues? Understanding risk? Percentages? Probabilities? Any examples that made you want to punch a hole in the TV?


  • Percentages, probabilities and ability to interpret data as such. I'm hearing this in Central European region a lot these days: "Recession ahead: Analysts adjusted their forecast of GDP growth by 1 percent, from previous 2.5% to 1.5%" The adjustment is not by 1%, but 1 percentage point, and it's still growth (althogh lower as previously expected), not recession. They really should put numbers into context and interpret data in wider perspective to give readers more accurate information.

  • Alan, I'm glad that you're involved with this effort. The New York Times has been an amazing example of what data journalism can achieve. The NYT information design team (I mostly know Amanda Cox, but I'm sure the whole group is massively talented) sets a standard that other media outlets should aspire to. They aren't alone -- The Guardian, 538, The Washington Post, The Economist -- have all built effective teams and capabilities as well.

    In my mind, the work of these organizations has been vital to planting a seed for data literacy. More and more people are exposed to powerful data stories and well-considered data visualizations. Perhaps the challenge is in spreading the data journalism capabilities from these top-tier media organizations to the rest of the media world. I'd be curious if you agree and how that might happen.

    Of course there are infuriating examples of the media's misunderstanding of data presentation (or misrepresentation) like this old chestnut:

  • Percentages and probabilities. Because we live in a soundbite world, often times limited to 280 characters, and with some outlets (not the good ones) using clickbait, it seems that the more shocking the statistic the better. And yes, it's completely the responsibility of the reader/media consumer to dig in, but the general public is being bombarded constantly (with dare I say, crap), and so their defenses are often worn down (not letting anyone off the hook, here). I think on top of just being more data literate about the facts, it's really also understanding:

    (1) Who are the players you can trust, who is using good data practices.

    (2) Where your own biases are so you don't just fall into the land of an echo chamber, and you are actually seeking out real, meaningful stories backed by real, meaningful facts.

    (3) It's more important than ever to be curious. Don't take things at face value, ask questions, and VERIFY!

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