Statistics in Journalism Practice and Higher Education

Statistics in Journalism Practice and Higher Education

Jairo A. Lugo-Ocando (University of Leeds, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch023
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Drawing from comparative experiences in the United Kingdom and the United States, this chapter examines the issues and challenges of trying to teach statistics to journalism students. In so doing, it discusses the epistemological reasons why should journalism studies as a field incorporate statistics while arguing in favour of a re-examination of the overall curricula in British universities. The chapter deals with issues of resource, competences and abilities of those called to teach statistics in this area as well as the limitations and constrains in terms of resources and teaching materials. The chapter finally calls for an integrated approach in which statistics is not taught as a silo but instead embedded into the wider syllabus.
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Statistics are prominently featured in most news media outlets on a daily basis, yet most citizens and many news reporters do not have the knowledge required to read them critically (Utts, 2003: 74) or analyse and use them in a meaningful manner in their work or their lives. The result is that the public is often ill informed about the statistics that underpin public policy. The public understanding of the data is flawed which leads to unsubstantiated public reasoning about policy. Headlines followed by news stories about immigration, welfare benefits, crime and many other societal issues tend to confuse, create unnecessary panic or even distort the public debates that the citizens should be having around those same issues.

No place in the developed world is this truer than in the United Kingdom, which lags far behind when it comes to preparing its citizens to understand better and educating appropriately its journalists in the use of statistics (Gal, 2002), particularly in relation to analysing public policy. More so as active and critical citizens, in contemporary information-driven societies, need to possess capacities and skills of statistical literacy (Nikiforidou, Lekka, & Pange, 2010: 795), which both the public in general and journalists in particular in the UK seem to lack.

This knowledge gap is reinforced by distinctive national journalism cultures that define the way statistics are reported from one society to another (Hanitzsch et al., 2011). In relation to statistics, there is some evidence to suggest that there is a difference in the way quantitative data is used to produce, substantiate and contextualise news stories between media outlets in different countries (Cohen, 2001; Swain, 2013). This difference can be observed not only in terms of the frequency in which statistics are included in the stories and the number of stories that report statistics but also in the way in which statistics are used by journalists to construct other stories (Lugo-Ocando & Faria Brandão, 2015; Utts, 2010).

These differences are underpinned by elements such as the distinctive epistemological traditions that characterise research approaches in journalism practice (Mellado, Moreira, Lagos, & Hernández, 2012; Van Dalen, 2012), the educational background of those who practise professional journalism (Schultz, 2002; Tumber, 2005) and the different expectations from the audiences and newsrooms to obtain fact-based elements in what they read, listen and see in the news (Madianou, 2005). All of which goes down to what has been defined as distinctive models of journalism professionalisation around the world (Waisbord, 2013) and which are closely linked to the education and training of journalists in each country.

To be sure, what makes this quantitative knowledge gap even more pronounced is the lack of Higher Education provisions of statistics in journalism education in the United Kingdom. So far, very few institutions incorporate the teaching of statistics in under graduate degrees in journalism and none have statistics as a core module. In a way, journalism studies in the UK resembles the state of sociological studies in the 1980s when few degrees in that subject area had statistics. This despite the fact that nowadays it would be impossible to think of a degree in sociology that did not incorporate statistics as a core part of the syllabus.

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