Numbers stuff every reporter should know

I was emailing with some journalist-friends about what reporters on policy or social science beats should really know. It’s unreasonable to expect reporters to have the full skill-set of academic empirical research. I may not be a representative voice on this issue, but I think the below set is pretty reasonable. Roughly speaking, these are skills I would expect of the median undergraduate public policy major across the country, especially an undergraduate studying what’s on the reporter’s own beat:

  1. Knowing how to interpret the size of a linear regression coefficient.
  2. Understanding what statistical significance means–and doesn’t mean.
  3. Understanding what r-squared is.
  4. Having some sense of why regressions go wrong—for example, the possibility of selection bias and reverse causality.
  5. Understanding the inherent limitations of cross-sectional analyses such comparisons of mortality across states with different levels of inequality.
  6. Innate suspicion of any complex statistical analysis that lacks a compelling underlying causal story. This would include the fact that most elaborate non-experimental analyses that reach dramatic or counter-intuitive conclusions are simply wrong.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect reporters to know anything that requires a derivative, the words “heteroskedastic,” or anything involving the term “instrumental variables.”

If covering health policy or public health, I would add a few more items:

  1. Knowing what odds ratios and relative risks are, and how these concepts can be misleading when base rates vary.
  2. Understanding the basic properties of screening tests–e.g. the index card of formulas that link the sensitivity and specificity of screening tests and underlying prevalence of a condition to positive and negative predictive value.
  3. Familiarity with milestones such as the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, the 5-10 leading articles in the field and the classics such as Paul Starr’s and Ted Marmor’s books that provide the context of current health policy.
  4. Familiarity with basic vocabulary such as moral hazard and adverse selection.
  5. Understanding the basic mechanics of a clinical trial, including terms such as “intent to treat” and “effect of treatment on the treated group.”
  6. Understanding the rudiments of population genetics and basic facts about genes and chromosomes.
  7. Knowing basic numbers on U.S. health expenditures, overall and within the key categories subject to debate.
  8. Knowing basic numbers regarding leading causes of mortality.


Unfortunately, we live in a stupidly innumerate society and popular culture. This puts reporters at a tremendous disadvantage, since they come out of this culture. They need to fight the stupid and tool-up.

None of the above items is very hard. You can’t be a good film critic if you’ve never seen Citizen Kane, Star Wars, or the Godfather. You can’t cover a foreign country properly if you don’t know the language and culture. You can’t cover public policy properly if you don’t speak the language and lack bare-bones familiarity with the tools of that trade.

That’s my list, anyway. Is it reasonable?


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