In an article entitled, “Spinning Heads and Spinning News: How a Lack of Statistical Proficiency Affects Media Coverage,” math prof Rebecca Goldin wrote:
“Reporting the news accurately has increasingly come to depend on a careful dissection of numbers, and the press often isn’t up to the job. Statistics are everywhere — from how many people lack health insurance to how to improve math education — yet they are poorly understood by the general public and the press alike. As a result, the press sometimes misuses, or even abuses, statistics in its news coverage, and readers rarely notice. Since news sources are the main avenue by which the public understands many public health issues, these misguided representations of science can actually shape public policy, legislation, and individual choices.
In order to present issues of risk, data, or science accurately, it is essential that media writers understand basic statistical and epidemiological principles, as well as the methods of scientific discovery. The press is most powerful when it goes beyond politics and morality to point out what science says, what it doesn’t, and what it can’t.
In an era in which Wikipedia and WebMD are considered by experts more reliable than journalism for certain kinds of information, journalists and media sources need to evolve to maintain their relevance. At the same time, journalists are under newer and greater pressures than previously due to budget cuts and shrinking of the news industry. Statisticians can play an important role in this: work with journalists to represent scientific findings accurately and wholly, and encourage them to promote scientific thinking in the mainstream. Statistical literacy is an essential part of life, not just for our students, but also for our media-consuming public.”
In today’s segment of this week-long series of video clips (from an interview taped with me at the recent NIH Medicine in the Media workshop), I remind journalists of the help that’s available to them in most communities.
I also remind journalists of a guide published by the Association of Health Care Journalists that covers many statistical concepts. While it is meant as a membership benefit, AHCJ will sell the guide at a reasonable cost (I believe it’s $20) to non-members, who can contact firstname.lastname@example.org. (While I wrote the guide, I get no profit nor royalty from its sale or distribution.)