Math for Journalists

The head of the UTSC joint journalism program, Dr. Karen McCrindle, recently told me she was concerned that journalism students need more teaching about the importance of math. When we met last summer to overhaul the course I teach, called Intro to News Reporting, she suggested we spend more time covering how to count, how to do business stories and how to understand percentages and ratios…all with the goal to enable the students to write more in depth stories.

I agreed with her, as on a personal level, it’s a little discussed but often true anecdote among journalists in my circle that many journalists (including me) are weaker in maths and sciences then we are in other subjects. Lots of students raise their hands when I do a straw poll in j-school classes when I ask them “Who sucks at math?”
This is ironic because I spent many years as a business reporter/anchor for CTV News net and Report on Business Television, where I learned to understand and report on financial statements, stock market movements, gold futures, and other business stories.
In fact, aside from business stories, one of the most useful skills I learned over my nearly 30 years as a journalist, has been how to count crowds at an event. Why is this useful? Because the officials will usually overestimate the crowds (stories usually go something like this: “Organizers say 1 million people attended the Caribana Parade in Toronto.”) while police and other law enforcement authorities like to underestimate the crowds, especially at riots or protests.
But numbers matter for journalists, not just in story writing, but also in calculating how long a story runs in seconds, how many stories will fit into a radio or television newscast, and how many seconds you have to trim from a piece of video to meet the lineup editor’s request that your story run 1:40 and no more. So as a writer, editor, anchor, and executive producer of our college radio and television students’ newscasts, I have become pretty good with counting.
Plus, you’d think that being married to an accountant and having helped to write parts of his three financial accounting textbooks would have also raised my number literacy.
Well… think again.
Talking with Anne Lavrih, a colleague from 680 News yesterday, we discovered plenty of similarities: she has a son the same age as as mine, she’s been in radio for a hundred years, as I have, and we will both be teaching at Centennial this winter. She also mentioned that she’s turning 47 on Dec 31.
“Ha ha I’m older then you by 2 months,” I said, thinking that on October 11 of this year, I turned 47, too. She replied that she was born in 1962. “Impossible,” I retorted. “I’m 47 and I’m from 1961.”
Friends, two months after my birthday, I have now realized, that journalists really do suck at math. The bad news? I’m not 47. I’m 48! My husband says it’s not my lack of ability in math — it’s just that I’ve now started counting backwards.
Happy New Year to all!

1 thought on “Math for Journalists”

  1. I have kept this blog on my bookmarks since your wrote it in December. As the publicist for Scotiabank Caribana it has always been my task to estimate the size of the crowd. It is a tough call in that Caribana is an all day event, we find that over the course of a day we see a complete turn-over of people lining the route … we have spectators who stay from 10 to 2, others noon to 2 etc. So, while the crowd at anyone time might not be a million, at the end of the day, the numbers are there. On Tuesday, at ROM (April 27) at 10 am, Scotiabank Caribana will be holding a press conference and issuing a Ipsos Reid 2009 Economic Impact Study which in part handles your questions about numbers. This is a 3rd party study paid for by the Federal Govt. You are welcome to attend

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