Media Moves

Biz journalists need to question the numbers

March 16, 2012

Posted by Chris Roush

By Chelsey Dulaney

Duke University professor Sarah Cohen urged reporters to question the numbers Friday at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis.

Cohen — who won a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting at the Washington Post before accepting the Knight professorship for Journalism and Public Policy at Duke — spoke about the credibility of economic impact studies, which she said can often overstate the economic value of large-scale construction projects or events on their surrounding areas.

Cohen recognized the difficulty of digging below the surface of the reports, providing resources such as Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data that can provide reporters with useful information for data comparison.

“You either have to repeat what they say and move on quickly, or challenge it and change the entire point of your story,’ she said. “There isn’t a great option in there.”

Cohen also urged journalists to analyze the methodology behind economic impact studies, as well question who conducts and pays for them.

She asked reporters to search for the real numbers in studies — not estimations and hypothetical data— and stressed the importance of contextualizing these numbers by comparing them to local numbers and totals.

“You kind of have to have in the back of your head, compared to what?” Cohen said.

Dulaney is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.

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