OLD Media Moves

Business journalists and numbers

January 20, 2006

Richard Holden, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal who is now executive director of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, has spent the past few years collecting examples from newspapers of how journalists improperly use numbers in their writing. He also teaches seminars across the country to journalists on how to better use numbers.

The Numbers Guy column, which should be required reading for any business reporter, in this morning’s WSJ, catches up with Holden and his quest to improve number usage in stories. It’s an amusing and somewhat embarrassing tale.

Writes Carl Bialik, aka as “The Numbers Guy”: “Part of the problem is embedded in the culture of the profession, Mr. Holden says: ‘Journalists always prided themselves on knowing so little about math.’ (Specialists in business, economics and sports were notable exceptions.) He also points out that many journalists can sail through college and journalism school without taking a class in math or statistics. Numerical knowledge often gets acquired on the job. ‘You learn by doing, and learn somewhat from your mistakes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully we’re kind of spreading the word a little bit by doing this.’

I would have agreed with Bialik about business and sports reporters until I started reading the profile of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in this week’s Sports Illustrated. The second paragraph reads: “Take league revenue: $5.7 billion this year versus $975 million in 1989. (Major League Baseball made $4.1 billion in 2004, the NBA about $3 billion.)”

The word “made” is what bothers me in this sentence, and it shows a lack of knowledge about what “revenue” means. Revenue is not money “made.” Net income, or profit, is money “made.” When I see something like this in a major publication, it makes me question what’s wrong in the rest of the issue.

There has been a movement, so far unsuccessful, here at my university to require students to pass a math test similar to the spelling and grammar test that they must pass to receive a degree from the journalism school. If you have trouble with math, I recommend a book called Math Tools for Journalists by Ole Miss professor Kathleen Wickham, herself a former reporter.

Read the entire Numbers Guy column here.

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