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7 Common Mistakes Journalists Make While Using Data


Journalists come across statistics and any other type of data everywhere. However, it is not always clear how to use the data wisely in articles. Data reporting is the skill all writers, especially journalists, should have.

It is essential to analyze and interpret information correctly to mar the effect of the whole writing. Though it may seem rather clear, many authors make stupid mistakes in data and reporting we want you to prevent from.

We are going to look at some common errors and find out how to avoid them:

  • Statistics as an absolute truth
  • Underestimating visualisation
  • Neglecting averages
  • Percentage change/points?
  • File type and size
  • Skipping the cleaning of the information
  • Disregarding the outside help

1. Statistics as an absolute truth

It is a well-known fact that journalists are not good at maths and statistics. Many of them tend to overgeneralize, use loaded questions or false casualty. Such misuses of statistics lead to the distortion of facts and number, which are necessary to be transmitted clearly.

Thus journalists hardly understand the figures they use in their works.

And it is not a myth since many authors think that statistics contain everything and they are always true. Consequently, no further investigation is needed.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to analyze all numbers as well as you do words. Having done a deeper research, you are able to show much competence and also help your readers to understand the numbers you use.

2. Visualization

It is quite common among journalists to begin their articles containing statistics with a list of figures, which may include minimums and maximums, medians and ranges in the data. In fact, such headlines with numbers like “Did you know average American spends 110 hours per year commuting?” or “More than 35% of bought food is thrown away” attract much attention.

However, after such a dry piece of writing it is complicated to develop the discussion of an issue and to choose the right direction. So, adding some visualization to the text will let your article continue smoothly.

Visual objects not only make the text look brighter but also provide additional information. For example, if a text is about company’s funding distribution, a pie chart will illustrate this company’s spending on particular services through the year.

Charts and diagrams are the first things people notice on the paper, so the use of visual tables will facilitate the readers’ perception.

On the other hand, poor visualization can misrepresent the concept. The misleading graph, for instance, will bring to inaccurate conclusions. To avoid such data distortion, it is desired to choose visualization wisely.

3. Outliers instead of averages

If you want your data organized in a meaningful way, you should forget about utilizing excellent numbers in the set which is unlikely to introduce the overall findings.

Such information disorients readers and reduces the effectiveness of your writing. Whether to drop or not to drop outliers is an unresolved question, but their usage is necessary when it’s important to show data error.

It is better to avoid outliers when it comes to incorrect measurements (when the man’s weight is 15 lbs, for instance) or when outliers don’t affect results of research.

4. Percentages

The confusion between percentage change and a change in percentage points is another frequent mistake in data reporting. The difference between those two concepts lies in measuring: the first one applies a measure of frequency; when the seconds uses binary measurement.

Some journalists tend to neglect fractions and prefer percentages. It is good, when variations of both create a profound reflection of the matter, when explaining economic growth, for example. However, their overuse can worsen the understanding of the text, in the case when your target readers are average users. The best solution to this is to make use of both types of info carefully and wisely.

Use fractions and round percentages in order not to make them look too complicated. Also, you should also know how and when to write numbers in academic writing.

5. File type and size

You should always take into account the type and the size of the data file. It will simplify the process of selecting a program to work with.

The most convenient tool is supposed to be an Excel file. It is easy to use, and almost any data works in Excel program. If not, you may also try Microsoft access or one of the numerous database programs run on SQL.

If you are not well-informed of such kind of software, you might learn about prime database programs through online resources.

6. Cleaning

Even if you waited for your statistics for a long time or spent hours to find it, you should look through it. The data should reflect real findings and credible results since well-informed readers will question your article.

Make corrections, avoid unreliable data and split first and last names into separate fields or full addresses into clear pieces. It is preferable to use Microsoft Excel here, where you can easily implement all the edits using separate cells.

The best way to use information is to read about how to clean it before you ask yourself: what is data reporting? Get informed about how to work with the material and then turn to other aspects of writing.

7. Ask for help

Never be afraid of or feel embarrassed about asking for some help. It is vital to collaborate with other people sharing your profession or with those who you think are capable of assisting and criticizing your works. Let’s remind us of Panama Papers: if it was not the help of ICIJ, most of the papers would never be analyzed. Mobile collaboration between journalists played a significant role in that case.

If you are the only data reporter or need to get some professional help, you can turn to a professional and you can try these out, which specializes in writing and can give you a hand in writing and answer all questions you might have.

Designed by Vishal Gaikar