The Nation Media Group (NMG), East Africa’s biggest media organisation, has decided to hire a specialist to “enforce numerical accuracy” in response to a common problem in journalism—innumeracy.
“Our readers and television viewers have raised concern at the frequent inaccuracy of figures carried in NMG stories,” Joseph Odindo, the Editorial Director, wrote to the Group’s Kenyan newsrooms early this month. “We often get calculations wrong, undermining the credibility of the stories we publish.”
He said a specialist would be posted to the main newsroom floor “with immediate effect” to “cross-check figures and calculations in stories and ensure they are correct”.
In a major addition to the group’s editorial policy, sub-editors and managing editors will now be required to “refer numbers-laden stories” to the specialist for a “final check”.
I spoke to Odindo, a friend who I worked with closely when I was training editor at NMG, about the new development.
What causes this numeracy problem? “May be it’s the case that language competence grows in inverse proportion to our numeracy skills,” he joked. “May be the two are mutually exclusive.”
We had a good laugh over that. But I forgot to tell him that our language competencies have also been attacked.
“On a serious note,” Odindo said, “it could be that people who end up in journalism are by nature not inclined to numbers.”
How big a problem is it?
“It’s a serious problem,” Odindo said.
Would hiring a specialist to “enforce numerical accuracy” fix the problem?
“It’s a short-term solution,” he said. “First of all we must do something about our gate-keeping”—which he admitted had slackened in recent years all over the world partly as a result of technological advancements and the growth of 24/7 news.
“But we must also help the individuals through providing them with training on ‘numbers for journalists,’” he added.
It is great that NMG acknowledges the problem of innumeracy in its newsrooms and that the group’s managers are doing something about it. In fact they should extend the same attention to Kampala and Dar es Salaam. NMG owns the Daily Nation, Business Daily, Taifa Leo, NTV, and Easy FM in Kenya; the Monitor, NTV, and KFM in Uganda; and Mwananchi Publications (publishers of The Citizen and Mwananchi newspapers) in Tanzania. NMG also owns and publishes the regional newspaper, The East African.
Reporting about numbers is not a peculiarly East African problem. The challenge of innumeracy in the newsroom has been well documented. Writing about it, veteran American journalist Jack Hart once said: “In the grand scheme of things, most journalists rank numbers somewhere below cockroaches.” He added: “If the truth be told, a good number of us chose journalism as a college major because it allowed us to avoid math courses.”
Whatever the causes of the problem, our news media commit “crimes of numbers” almost on a daily basis. The categories of the “crimes” vary from computing percentages wrongly, presenting wrong conversions, through getting multiplications or divisions wrong.
A few months ago, a Ugandan newspaper reported about proposed electricity tariffs and said consumers would be required to pay 15 per cent more. I took out a calculator and using the same figures found out that the increase would in fact be 20 per cent. The same newspaper had earlier given David Beckham’s Bentley a value 10 times higher because the reporter (or sub-editor) got the conversion from the pound to the shilling wrong. More recently another newspaper reported that “as of June 2010, illicit government borrowings from Bank of Uganda increased during the period by 25.8 per cent from Shs.25 trillion to Shs.3.1 trillion” (just in case you’re numerically challenged, note that a movement from 25 trillion to 3.1 trillion can’t be an increase. Note also that even if we assumed that the 3.1 trillion was a typo and the actual figure should have been 31 trillion this would suggest an increase of 24 per cent, not 25.8 per cent).
Some journalists get the numbers right, but the reader would require a Ph.D in economics or statistics to make sense of them. Their writing is simply not accessible and is often devoid of context. Others avoid numbers altogether, making it difficult for their audiences to make comparisons or understand claims, for instance, of increases or decreases in all manner of areas.
Yet, journalists can’t run away from numbers. Much of what they report is based on numbers. Election results, government budgets, corruption scandals, economic forecasts, environmental degradation forecasts, population growth, unemployment figures, food shortages, oil prices, name it. The news is full of numbers.
And that’s why Odindo is right. Hiring a specialist to cross-check stories for numerical accuracy is a stop-gap measure. One long-term solution would be newsroom and workshop-based training coupled with a sustained engagement between reporters and their editors on their attitudes towards numbers. Journalists don’t have to be or become mathematical geniuses, but they can and should improve their skills in reporting about numbers.
The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), which I head, recognises the problem of innumeracy in the newsroom and we have included a module on “numbers and the news” in most of our training for journalists. A few months ago, the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) gave us financial support to extend this training to more journalists, especially those who report on health and development issues.
We kicked off the training in April with a workshop for senior editors. We were worried that if we invited only 15 editors as our budget required, we would get only eight. So we invited 25. They all showed up—on a rainy Kampala morning.
By the end of the training, we didn’t have to sell to them the idea of encouraging their reporters to attend the training. In fact, the editors recommended we increase the duration of the workshop from a day to two at the very minimum.
Then they nominated their reporters for the next training in May. We literally begged a half of the number we had invited to turn up. And about a half of them came late.
Our reward was the positive feedback from the keen reporters. They want to come back for more training on numbers. And they want their copy editors to come along too.
To learn more about ACME’s News and Numbers workshops, click here
About the Author: Dr. Peter Mwesige is Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME). He has chaired the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University and is a former Executive Editor of the Monitor in Kampala.