National Press Club

Panel of statistics experts offers four tips for reporters

June 5, 2014 | By Lori Russo | LRusso@stantoncomm.com

The National Press Club Journalism Institute sponsored a professional development session June 4 to explore the challenges journalists face when using statistics in reporting. The panelists, including NPC member Michelle Jamrisko of Bloomberg News, Sallie Keller of the Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech University and Ron Wasserstein of the American Statistical Association, shared their insights on what journalists need to know to accurately report statistical information. Here are four tips they offered:

Tip #1: Determine the Origin of the Data
Without context, statistical information is simply a collection of numbers. Bloomberg’s Jamrisko pointed out that a lot of data come from government or private groups that are more astute than many journalists are about the technical facts behind the numbers. In order to determine what those data actually mean, reporters must go a layer deeper to make sure nothing is taken out of context or swayed.

Tip #2: Follow the Money

The panelists agreed that digging deeper into data and understanding how statistics are being positioned requires knowing who funded the research study, survey or poll. At times, finding that information can be difficult because the results are promoted by or passed through third parties, but it is worth taking the time to follow the trail.

Tip #3: Give More Detail

When including statistics in stories, Virginia Tech’s Keller urged reporters to provide more detail. She said that the population is gaining quantitative literacy every day and reporters should provide more information about the study or survey’s methodology, sample size, sample selection method, margin of error, confidence level, response rate and overall context.

Tip #4: Ask an Expert
The American Statistical Association’s Wasserstein reminded reporters that there are impartial statistical experts ready and willing to help them analyze data. He suggested that rather than simply reporting on data that is promoted in a press release, journalists should ask questions of the source and consult expert statisticians who are unassociated with the information. They can, he said, help determine what is meaningful and what is driven by someone’s agenda.

The panel was moderated by Club member Todd Gillman, Washington Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News.