business

Journalists don't know math

Journalists tend to be weak at math. This affects their view of the world, and the way they cover news.
Stephen Baker

A good way to make friends in a newsroom is to confess that you once got a D in Algebra II. Suddenly you're surrounded by people saying, "Me too." Journalism is a safehouse for the mathmatically challenged.

Forget for a moment the much-ballyhooed liberal-conservative imbalance, and consider the consequences of newsrooms filled with people who understand paragraphs but struggle with ratios. True, there are plenty of capable math types at most publications. But I don't think their vision of the world prevails.

What's different about their vision? This is just a guess, but I would imagine that people who master both math and language can analyse the news through two different lenses. It's a bit like being bilingual or bicultural. This gives them perspective, which can be especially important when covering business, science and technology. English and history majors, by contrast, tend to look for metaphors and symbols. Enron: Company of the future (led by geniuses who appear to know a lot about math...) which has redefined the natural-gas business into something far more cosmic...

Or think about the dot-com bubble. At its height, Netscape co-founder Jim Clark and his bankers toured the world placing their start-up, Healtheon, in the middle of a multi-trillion-dollar triangle involving the government, insurance companies and the public. When asked about the business case, according to Michael Lewis' New New Thing, their response was, "You do the math." How many of us did?

I got to thinking about math while reading Tim Porter's post on the skills the journalism schools and newspapers should be looking for. A number of analyses say that j-schools accept too many bad writers and poor thinkers. They say that the coming journalists should be critical thinkers, self-starters, multi-lingual, comfortable with different forms of media--in short, superstars. So while we're at it, should we also demand proficiency in math?

It's a beautiful day in the Jersey burbs. I'm sure traffic on the Garden State is choked with folks heading down to the shore. I'm off for a bike ride. More tomorrow on how blogs bring together the two dominant languages of the world--English and Math.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE