numeracy, quantitative literacy, journalism, media, education, two cultures


Journalists are tasked with holding power to account; often, that means evaluating and interpreting numbers. But anecdotally, journalists are ill at ease with figures. This shortcoming is worrying both in terms of the quality of news provided to the public, and the implications for informed democratic debate. This paper tests the assertion that journalism as a profession is numeracy-challenged through a small-scale study of the numeracy capabilities of journalism students. Some oft-cited reasons for these shortcomings are discussed, including the pressures of deadlines and the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle, where the mantra of “never wrong for long” appears to justify a casual approach to getting numbers right. Then, drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his notion of “cultural capital,” the under-appreciated role played by symbolic culture in journalists’ attitude to figures is highlighted. Symbolic culture determines what is valued by a group or sub-group of people (such as journalists), and what it is acceptable to denigrate (“I’m no good at math!” spoken as a boast). Journalism culture, it is argued, is opposed to numeracy. Finally, it is argued that in addition to the worthwhile efforts to improve numeracy skills among journalists, the culture of journalism itself needs to be transformed. The novel suggestion is made that science and math students should be encouraged to enter the profession, which has traditionally been dominated by liberal arts students.



Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License