Statistics and the Quest for Quality Journalism

Statistics and the Quest for Quality Journalism

A Study in Quantitative Reporting

By Alessandro Martinisi & Jairo Alfonso Lugo-Ocando

This book looks at how numbers and statistics have been used to underpin quality in news reporting. In doing so, the aim is to challenge some common assumptions about how journalists engage and use statistics in their quest for quality news. It seeks to improve our understanding about the usage of data and statistics as a primary means for the construction of social reality.

Hardback, 250 Pages

ISBN:9781785275333

October 2020

£80.00, $125.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents
  • Links

About This Book

Statistics and the use of numbers, in general, are becoming increasingly important in journalism, this to the point that it cannot be overemphasised. In the age of the so-called big data, journalists’ engagement with numbers is seen as the Holy Grail to save the news media from declining streams of revenues, hyper-fragmentation of audiences and the de-politicisation of society in general. Indeed, for some the interaction between journalists and numbers is the future. These voices often refer to the ‘datafication’ of news – and society in general – and vehemently call for the incorporation of statistics and data into journalism practice as a way of improving the quality of news. They see in the ‘data revolution’ a real possibility to revolutionise the way journalism is done, making news stories more comprehensive, relevant, accessible and engaging. It is a quest that pretends to use numbers to enhance journalism and provide better public service journalism. To be sure, many journalists are now expected to deal and examine big and small numbers almost on a daily basis at least in ways that they were not asked to do in the past. This against the pressure of time, declining resources and growing masses of quantitative information related to economic, political and social phenomena (including scientific and academic research reports, public opinion data, political polls, and official and non-official datasets, among others). 

Therefore, it is impossible today to disassociate the discussion about quality in the news from the use of numbers. In this sense, there are important questions to ask: How do journalists use statistics to articulate news? What are the reasons and rationale behind incorporating numbers in the news? Are news stories really better because they present the audience particular numbers or data? Does the incorporation of statistics make news stories more comprehensive and accessible? The book is an attempt to answer this along other more fundamental questions such as: What do we understand by quality in the news? Is data really the future for journalism?

In this book, we aim at challenging some common assumptions about how journalists engage and use statistics in their quest for quality news. In doing so, it seeks to improve our understanding about the usage of data and statistics as a primary means for the construction of social reality. This is a task, in our view, that is urgent in times of ‘post-truth’ politics and the rise of ‘fake news’. In this sense, the quest to produce ‘quality’ news, which seems to require incorporating statistics and engaging with data, as laudable and straightforward as it sounds, is instead far more problematic and complex than what is often accounted for.

To start with, the notion of ‘quality’ in the news remains not only elusive but also contentious. On the one hand, as it is argued here, the notion of ‘quality news’ and ‘quality news providers’ has centred around the normative claims of journalism being a public service to society; something that, as we will argue, is questionable both factually and historically. On the other, there is ample evidence to suggest that contrary to the common assumptions statistics do not necessarily bring accessibility, reliability, validity nor credibility to the news stories. Indeed, based on extensive research and drawing from original data, the book explores the use of statistics within the practice of journalism through the lenses of five quality dimensions: relevance, accuracy, timeliness, interpretability and accessibility. According to the authors, by studying each dimension as a threshold that seeks to guarantee the quality of information in news it is possible to understand the whole journalistic workflow, from production to consumption, on how statistics are articulated throughout in order to substantiate quality news stories. The authors highlight the dichotomy between the normative and professional aspirations of journalism, whereby statistics help support the quality of news, and there is a desire to strengthen the ability of storytellers (journalists) through the use of numbers. The book tries to underpin the tensions and issues around journalism and statistics. The central point made is that while the concept of quality and its dimensions remains a theoretical aspiration among journalists, what they really aim to achieve is ultimately credibility and authority. Hence, drawing from this last dichotomy we argue that not only the use of statistics automatically translates into quality journalism but that in some occasions it even hinders the possibility of greater civic engagement with the news.

Reviews

Martinisi and Lugo-Ocando’s detailed empirical study of data-driven crime and health news coverage in mainstream British papers confirms that “Big Data” is no panacea for achieving “Quality Journalism”. As their book’s wide-ranging literature review shows, this neoliberal fallacy about methods of math enlightenment in the “Infosphere” reaches back to Condorcet’s “Social Mathematics” as a hallmark of the liberal faith during the French Revolution. — Michael Hofmann, Professor of Communication and Multimedia Studies, Florida Atlantic University, US.

Mortality rates, indicators of happiness, drug efficacy, relative risk...Journalists need to tell stories to make the news attractive, and they use quantitative data to make the stories more credible. But where do they get those data, do they really understand their limitations and explain them to the reader? How can they avoid the risk of misinformation? This timely book analyzes the role of data reporting in the information cycle and will be an essential reading in any school of journalism. — Pietro Ghezzi, Professor RM Phillips Chair in Experimental Medicine, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, UK.

Author Information

Alessandro Martinisi is Lecturer at the Academy for Digital Entertainment in the Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands.

Jairo Lugo-Ocando is Professor in Residence and Director of the Graduate School at Northwestern University in Qatar.

Series

No series for this title.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction; Chapter 2: Numbers as information in the Information Society; Chapter 3: The never-ending debate on quality in journalism; Chapter 4: Statistics in journalism practice and principle; Chapter 5: The normative importance of ‘quality’ in Journalism; Chapter 6: Journalism meets statistics in real life; Chapter 7: The ideology of Statistics in the News; References; Index

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