Numbers cannot talk, but they may tell you often just as much as human sources. But just like human sources, you need to ask! But what should you be asking a number? Well, that’s where statistics come in. Statistics are crucial to Journalism!
Mathematicians have been developing an entire science, statistics, to come up with answers from numbers. Of course, you’re not required to hold an academic degree in statistics to conduct an ‘interview’ with data, but before you can be successful in doing so, there are a few basics you need to know.
Let’s check out an online tutorial for math-phobic journalists titled ‘Statistics Every Writer Should Know’ that was published for the first time in 1996 by a professional reporter who had also majored in a Northwestern University program called ‘Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences‘ (imagine to fit this on a job application), and who was thinking that using his math background might help a few of his fellow journalists become a little less afraid of statistics and numbers.
The online publication was attracting lots of attention, and through the years and the journalist has received numerous emails in which students thanked him for saving their asses on their final statistics exams. They were no precisely the audience that he aimed for, but he said he okay with helping anyone. Here are a few excerpts from his tips:
Choose the Right Statistic
This is actually one of the common statistics that you will see, and it is very easy to compute. The only thing you need to do is adding up all values in a specific data set, and subsequently dividing that total by the data set’s number of values. So you should use this statistic if you want to give an idea of the average.
Whenever you’re finding yourself writing words like ‘the average household’ this or ‘the average worker’ that, it’s not that you use the mean for describing these situations. You just want a statistical number that’s telling us something about the household or the worker in the middle. That the ‘median’. Also, this statistical number is quite easy to determine. The median literally IS the value right in the middle. If you’re just lining up all of your data set’s values, from largest to smallest, or vice versa, the one right in the center is the median. You learn all about these techniques at Florida’s community colleges.
If you compare a data set’s mean to its median, you will get an idea of how widely your data set’s values are spread apart. Statisticians use a specific value (the standard deviation, or SD), that lets them know how widely spread apart the values in a data set actually are. A high SD is telling you that the set of data is very diverse, and a lower SD is telling you that the data are in relatively close range. If your tasks require you to work a lot with scientific research or numbers, it may be worth to learn a thing or two about the standard deviation. Check out also this post about scholarships for Hispanic students.
A data set’s ‘mode’ is the value that occurs the most frequently. That’s all. Pretty easy, you’d say? Here’s no math involved, no need to take out your calculator. Just count it all up, and whatever number has the most tally marks is winning, that the ‘Mode’. Now when do you the mode in a story? I’m sorry to say, but Hardly Ever! Yes, I understand, you feel like the easier the math gets, the less useful it will be to you. But you’ll see that there will be times when you easily slip the mode into your story. Check out also this post about the value of Spanish and bilingual reporting.
Suppose you’re writing a story on Halloween costumes, wouldn’t it then be great to be able to include what costumes were the best sold or most popular at any given store? That’s when the mode comes in useful, that’s exactly when you could be using the mode in your story, as the best sold or most popular examples from a dataset (list) of… whatever! You can use the mode for this example of Halloween costumes, for the most collected candy brands while trick or treating, for the most popular toilet paper brands used in employment agencies, and so on.
So in summary, here’s when you could use the mean, the median, and the mode in news stories. You can use the mean for describing the amount of money the Halloween shop collected per individual customer during this season. The mean number is usually larger than the median, as it may be skewed upward by just a few bigger customers.
You use the median if you want to describe just how much dollars the typical customer at the Halloween costume shop has been spending.
You use the mode for describing the most popular costume(s) that were sold at the Halloween shop this season.