Newspaper reporters: Proudly innumerate?

Kevin Carey, writing in a blog post yesterday that criticizes a Washington Post writer’s analysis of an academic study, says a lot of newspaper reporters are “proudly innumerate,” meaning they lack basic knowledge of mathematics and the scientific approach.

Carey’s argument is used to bolster another, more run-of-the-mill complaint: that reporters are biased. The topic of concern is Michelle Rhee, whose tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor was fraught with controversy, mainly over the numbers that have been used to defend and attack her approach. Carey argues that the Post reporter, writing about Rhee, “scoured a long and fair-minded … report” for “the most inflammatory word available and then used in [sic] a completely incorrect way.” The point of contention is the reporter’s use of the word “naive,” which can be used to describe an advanced statistical concept, in a way that Carey believes skews the report’s actual findings.

It’s true that more reporters probably majored in English than math, and that reporters are generalists, not experts. But the education beat — to which Carey is mainly referring — is where the nerds of the newsroom tend to cluster. To stick with the job, you have to enjoy analyzing test scores, explaining the meaning of value-added evaluations to the public (in some cases, even creating your own version), and digging into studies in search of p-values and standard deviations.

Education reporters are, in general, avid about studying up. You can find groups of education reporters gathered at conference panels to learn about the latest research almost monthly. Last week had some good examples of the fruits of those labors, including thoughtful coverage of a controversial study about KIPP charter schools and the finale of a USA Today investigation into cheating. Proudly innumerate is not the way I’d describe education reporters.

POSTED BY ON April 4, 2011