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Numbers in the News: a mathematics audit of a daily newspaper

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While numeracy is considered an essential skill in modern journalism, there has been little systematic investigation of the extent to which journalists rely on mathematics to report the news or of the kinds of mathematical errors that appear in newspaper stories. To establish baseline information about journalistic use and misuse of numbers, approximately 2000 local news stories were examined in a two-part mathematics audit of a daily metropolitan newspaper. A one-month content review found that nearly half of local news stories involved mathematical calculation. Stories using math tended to get front-page or front-section display. A three-month accuracy audit found mathematical errors to be fairly prevalent—a new type of numerical error was identified about every other day. Most errors were self-evident and involved elementary mathematics. Unquestioning use of figures, resulting in news stories with dubious and unsupported claims, also was documented. Eleven categories of numerical error were identified. Results suggest that journalists fail to apply the attention and skepticism to numbers that they routinely apply to other aspects of their work. Strategies are proposed for journalism practitioners and educators seeking to improve numeracy in the newsroom.
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Keywords: ACCURACY; JOURNALISM; JOURNALISM EDUCATION; MATHEMATICS; NEWSPAPERS; NUMERACY

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2002

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