The Uses of Science Statistics in the News Media and on Daily Life

The Uses of Science Statistics in the News Media and on Daily Life

Renata Faria Brandao (University of Sheffield, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch025
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Abstract

Statistical information as part of news reports of science is intended to legitimate the accounts of evidence based on peer-reviewed data. Indeed, the persuasive power of numbers can be seen in newsrooms as it supports and validates arguments (Boyle, 2000; Eberstadt, 1995; Goldacre, Bad Science, 2009; Hacking, 1965; Livingston & Voakes, 2005; Lugo-Ocando & Brandão, 2015). Nonetheless, these mathematical abstractions can also be used as a means to misinform the public (Huff, 1954; Moore, 1997). This chapter, thus, seeks both to understand how journalists use scientific statistics as a means to communicate current scientific research as well as how the public decodes this information. It proposes to address the construction of scientific statistics by journalists and its deconstruction by the public at large through a cross-Atlantic comparison of the uses of mathematics in science news and on daily life.
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Introduction

The structure of our society would be unthinkable without a mathematical language. The idea that mathematics, statistics and its variants are on a pedestal above all other knowledge, however, has long been the subject of scrutiny of theorist, academics and philosophers. Current scholarship tells us that objectivity is central to the agency of journalism (Mindich, 1998; Koch, 1990; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Sparks & Dahlgren, 1991; 1992). Since the beginning of the 20th century, objectivity has been present in most newsroom guidelines and greatly consumed by journalists everywhere. Inferring that news articles should present facts independently of biases, the notions of objectivity claims that news pieces should be based instead on neutral grounds and when possible depict all sides. Key scholars suggest that statistics is extensively considered one of the most prominent validating tools in the construction of this objective ground (Boyle, 2000; Davis & Hersh, 1986; Desrosieres, 1998; Eberstadt, 1995; Hacking, 1965; Koch, 1990; Livingston & Voakes, 2005; Zuberi, 2001). Indeed, the persuasive power of statistical data can be seen in newsrooms as it supports and validate arguments. In spite of this, few scholars have examined how this language is used in the newsroom. There are few studies that examine the origins of statistics as an objectifying tool when writing about science. This piece, thus, seeks to look at the uses of statistics in science news and evaluate the manipulation of data when gathering and disseminating news stories with reference to science. It focuses on media representations of statistics across media outlets, while examining the usage of statistics in science communication and news coverage. More specifically, it examines how statistics are used to articulate the narratives and shape discourses of science in the news media as well as how the public deconstructs these statistical information. In doing so, it looks at The Guardian and Folha de S. Paulo news production of science in 2013, how journalists in newsrooms access and interpret quantitative data when producing stories related to science and how the public decodes it. It investigates the nature of statistical news sources regularly used by journalists while also assessing how they are used as a means to articulate news stories. And produces a comparative study on how the British and Brazilian news media gather, handle and most importantly articulate statistics when writing about science. Furthermore, it looks at social networks as to assess the ways in which the public decoded this mathematical language. Results show a clear need of better education of statistical knowledge throughout the existing news processes. Focusing on science news while scrutinizing the uses of statistics in the articulation of news, it elucidates the power of statistics as a means to access truth and achieve journalistic objectivity if used properly. With the foreseeable outcome that these news processes works as a Chinese whisper, this study can potentially enlighten the possibility of changing the ways in which scientific statistical information is communicated.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cumulative Percentage: Sum of the percentage of each region/category from the top to the bottom, designed to sum to 100 per cent.

Sink or Swim: Derived from a popular expression in the Portuguese language, it is often used to define something of extremes.

Percentage: Figure that provides the percentage of total cases that falls into the given region/category.

Valid Percentage: A percentage that excludes all missing cases.

Quality Press: Category of (often British) newspaper distinguished by its seriousness.

Chinese Whispers: Traditional children’s play where a circle of people whispers given information to one, then this one to the next, and so forth.

Mathematical Language: System used to express, communicate and share mathematical information.

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