More than one of my friends has said “I didn’t go into journalism to do math.” They look at me cross-eyed when I tried to explain how to calculate a percent difference, which always seemed like basic math to me.
The thing is math is important to journalism, especially if you’re going to be diving into budgets, financial reports, polling figures and more. Heck, you need to know basic math in sports journalism to calculate your own statistics (I learned in high school never to rely on the stats given to me by the team).
I was reminded of this fact when I read a story earlier this week about average home prices. The Millburn township administrator popped into my head and all the times he ranted about how “average” is not a proper indicator of a town’s statistics, including taxes and home prices. Instead, you should be looking for the median, he’d argue.
His argument is that if there is a significantly higher than most or lower than most home price, it would screw up your average. The median price would be a better indicator of what most people are paying to buy a home (or sell it) in the town. The same with taxes.
But in order to understand this concept you need to have basic knowledge of statistics, which not everyone has.
There’s been a lot of talk about what journalism students need to learn in college and the disconnect between their education and the real world. The conversation will revolve around things like reporting, confirming information, writing better and multimedia skills. But no one ever mentions math and statistics, which is something nearly every journalist will encounter in their career.
When I was in college a billion years ago (OK, maybe not that long ago), math and statistics were not a requirement of my major. I did have to fulfill a math requirement that was not associated with my major, and my major did require you to take an economics class. In my education, though, I was never taught of the kind of math I’d need in the real world of journalism.
The same thing happened in my graduate education, which was far more recent than my undergraduate education.
I still regret not taking a statistics class, though I consider myself strong and math and understanding statistics. That doesn’t mean I know everything.
As we discuss the things journalists need to know, we need to include math and statistics. Colleges should be requiring it of their journalism students and should develop courses that focus on the type of math, statistics and budget knowledge they’d need. Afraid no one will teach it? I’m sure there are plenty of us (myself included) who would be happy to teach that kind of class.