Monday, February 19, 2018

Is Accepting Math Deficiency Destroying Journalism?

From 2013, an article by a professional journalist, who thankfully skipped any math in college -- then when he went for an MBA to understand the business he was in, discovered that calculus was a prerequisite for entry. So he committed to the road from lowest-level K-6 remediation up to calculus.

He points out that being "bad at math" is so accepted in the journalism industry, that it's actually a point of pride. We recall the article in the New Yorker three years ago this month about Yitang Zhang's marvelous progress on the twin primes conjecture, in which the journalist actually framed the entire story around how he knew so little math, he had to lie and cheat his way through high school algebra.

In our current case, the journalist (and now professor) suggests that this anti-math bias in journalism may actually be a contributing factor to the collapse of the industry -- in that both (a) the present cohort is unable to make sense of quantitative, scientific, or technological stories, which grow ever more essential to the world around us; and (b) they are unable to understand the financial and business case of their industry.

Well, Professors Kimball and Smith, welcome to journalism, where “bad at math” isn’t just a destructive idea — it’s a badge of honor. It’s your admission to the club. It’s woven into the very fabric of identity as a journalist.

And it’s a destructive lie. One I would say most journalists believe. It’s a lie that may well be a lurking variable in the death of journalism’s institutions. 

Name me a hot growth area in journalism and I’ll show you an area in desperate need of people who can do a bit of math. Data. Programming. Visualization. It’s telling that most of the effort now is around recruiting people from outside journalism to do these things. 

But it doesn’t end there. Name me a place where journalism needs help, and I’ll show you more places where math is a daily need: analytics, product development, market analysis. All “business side” jobs, right? Not anymore. 

Truth is, “bad at math” was never a good thing in journalism, even when things like data and analytics weren’t a part of the job. Covering a city budget? It’s shameful how many newsroom creatures can’t calculate percent change. Covering sports? It’s embarrassing how many sports writers dismiss the gigantic leaps forward in data analysis in all sports as “nerd stuff.”

In short, we’ve created a culture where ignorance of a subject is not only accepted, it’s glorified. Ha ha! Journalists are bad at math! Fire is hot and water is wet too!

Nieman Lab.

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