THINKING ALOUD: Journalism by numbers: It is crucial to report stastics in media

Thursday November 9 2017

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

By Prof Zulfiqarali Premji

I must confess that I am not a journalist. I just took up writing contemporary articles in newspapers as a hobby… But, more significantly, my intention is to write analytically on topical issues.

The era of data journalism is fast approaching, and ethics require that news and events are presented truthfully – and with accuracy. Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth;’ but, getting the facts right is a cardinal principle of journalism. A journalist should always strive for accuracy, and be factual. In this endeavour, the greatest challenge is use of data. There is no way that the media can avoid reporting on data, as it is important to present the general public with facts and figures. This makes the reporting evidence-based – and also reflects the reality.

It’s a general observation that Statistics is not an easy subject to master. But one’d agree that journalists cannot avoid statistics in their day-to-day working as professionals. Statistics are everywhere – and inescapable. There’s quite a lot of material regarding media and statistics that can be cited in seeking to come up with meaningful and credible reporting. I believe there’s considerable misunderstanding, underestimation and even ignorance of the nature of statistics, and their role in shaping society’s daily life.

Journalists should consider three key points: (a) statistics are NOT too distant from the news; they’re at the heart of journalism; (b) statistics are NOT mathematics; they are about the application of the same kind of logical and valid reasoning that’s needed for other types of news material; and (c) statistics are neither cold nor boring; they are an endless source of inspiration for much excellent journalism in the past, present and, undoubtedly, future.

Statistics are used in reporting news in different settings, including politics, economics, business, finance, science, education, health, crime, sports, entertainment, community and many other areas of daily life. In the event, it is likely that this will even more be the case well into the future, when the ‘Big Data’ society gradually normalises. Yet, when it comes to the quality of such news-reporting, the media often ‘get a bad press’ – to the extent that some experts have come to assume that journalists seldom get their numbers right!

Meanwhile, many journalists – perhaps ‘suffering from a blind spot for numbers – tend to dismiss statistics altogether.


Confessing that they ‘hated’ Mathematics at school – and that data makes them dizzy – they’d not hesitate to admit that they chose journalism as a career to work with words, NOT numbers!

Some journalists see numeracy as ‘a kind of virus which, if caught, can damage one’s literary faculty, leading to a permanent loss of vocabulary and shrivelling of sensitivity!’

In most newsrooms, ‘literacy is considered essential for reporters – or, at least: their subeditors… But NOT numeracy!’ Importantly, journalists just need to remember one basic, journalistic question: ‘Do these data make sense?’

Some basic knowledge of statistics is essential. But, what journalists need the most is not a set of skills to calculate or create their own data, but skills to use logical, valid reasoning and journalistic skepticism to: (a) find and acquire data; (b) explore and evaluate their real meaning in context; (c) investigate non-numerical factors shaping them, and (d): report them in a balanced, fair, accurate, accessible and engaging manner. All this does not require any special mathematical skills. If one can add, subtract, divide and multiply, one can learn to handle statistics for the news – as long as one is willing to apply to data the same probing and enquiring mind that’s essential for any other news work.

Journalism is operating in an increasingly chaotic world of ‘lies, damn lies and statistics!’ [British Premier Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies; damned lies – and statistics!”]. Statistics, of course, don’t lie; they cannot! It’s those using statistics that lie – intentionally or unintentionally. The real problem is not numbers per se, but the way people produce, use and assign meanings to them.

Statistics-based lies, whenever they occur, are often because data are inappropriately produced – or improperly interpreted – for all sorts of benign or malicious; objective or subjective reasons.

That’s why good news-reporting of statistics is badly needed. People tend to place more faith in numbers than in words – and the way they’re presented in the news plays a crucial role in reinforcing or challenging such faith.

It’s a grave mistake when reporters use statistics to reinforce their own views and preconceptions of reality. They take data that can fit in their own narrow scope of what the story should say. In so doing, journalists aren’t reporting accurately the events and phenomena they’re trying to describe or analyse. Reporting ridiculous and meaningless figures that’ve a bearing on national issues should be discouraged – and the relevant state organs would be justified to take appropriate action(s) as per the law.

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired MUHAS professor. His career spans over 40 years in academia, research and public health. He has authored over 100 publications.