Quantitative Skills Needed of Journalists

A View
January 16, 2007
Quantitative skills are not always taken seriously in journalism. Sometimes
numbers reported in the newspapers are one-sided, while at other times
they are plain wrong.  Many a times, numbers are not even mentioned in
reporting and that can be equally misleading.

I will give you a couple of examples.

Global warming is a fact. But almost all articles about global warming fail to
mention the percentage contribution due to humans. The absence of such
categorical data leads everyone to think that global warming is man-made.
If the man-made contribution is small, then our attempts to clean the air
may only be helpful in reducing harmful pollution and allergies, but may not
make a dent in global warming. But on the other hand, just because the
man-made contribution to greenhouse gases is small, it may be enough to
be the tipping point. All these issues can and should be clearly explained
quantitatively.

Another example is recent news that claims that gasoline needs to sold as
temperature compensated in warm states such as Florida. Gasoline which is
transferred to gas stations at the industry standard of 60 degrees will give
you 2% less gas if pumped in your tank in 90 degree weather. This robs
you of about 4/10ths of a gallon when you fill in your 20 gallon gas tank on
a hot summer afternoon, and as per some misguided activists it results in a
couple of billion dollars overcharge per annum in the USA. Not so fast! Here
is the quantitative information that is left off. First most gas station tanks
are underground and the variation of temperature below the ground is
much smaller, may be 1 to 5 degrees depending on the depth of the tank
below the ground. Lower the depth of the tank, lower is the influence of the
outside temperature as the dense earth above insulates the tank.  Also,
since oil prices fluctuate every day because of supply and demand, if pumps
were modified to deliver same weight (temperature compensated) of
gasoline, it would simply get figured into the price of the gasoline.

I have many other examples where media fails to properly quantify the
variables in the story, and most times it is done purely for sensation, and a
few times it is just plain ignorance. If it is the latter, universities need to
increase the number of required quantitative analysis courses for journalism
majors.

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