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Making numbers more approachable – Eleanor Fallon

Curing students’ fear of numbers is what PhD student Eleanor Fallon attempted in the seminar series “Media Challenges in a Digital Age”.

The statistics specialist gave an interactive presentation on the topic “Reporting on risk: How to effectively communicate numbers in news”.

Her topic is more relevant than ever during the ongoing pandemic. Daily we are bombarded with data on new covid cases or vaccination numbers. For this reason it is especially important to be able to interpret numbers and health risks.

However, a short survey at the beginning of the seminar showed that most of the students shy away from maths.

Ms Fallon wants to open up the conversation and make people more comfortable with numbers and statistics.

“When you have that fear it’s hard to continue working with it”, she said. “Numbers and statistics mustn’t be feared.”

Especially for journalism students it is vital to be able to work with numbers. “The disciplines can learn a lot from each other.

Journalists need to know how to interpret numbers and put them in appropriate wording”, module coordinator Kathryn Hayes emphasised.

Ms Fallon went on to demonstrate, using news headlines as examples, how misleading the way news outlets present numbers can be.

“Depending on the way risks are presented they might seem bigger or smaller even though multiple ways of presenting can be correct. “500 out of 10,000 means the same as 5 out of 100 but the two make different impressions.”

“Journalists are definitely using big numbers to sensationalise a topic”, she pointed out.

“This can not only be misleading but highly problematic if we think of anti-vaxxers who might have an interest in exaggeratedly presenting vaccine risks.

To avoid being misled, Ms Fallon shared a checklist for dealing with statistics: Questions to ask yourself include ‘In which format is the risk presented?’, ‘Is there a starting group (placebo group) to compare to? What is the starting risk?’, and ‘Does the number sound dramatic? If so, is the risk in absolute or relative format?’

Often, the relative number is higher and therewith sounds more dramatic than in the absolute format, she flagged. Context and wording are very important in that regard, she emphasised.

Along the way, Ms Fallon explained the basics of statistics and risk. Risks can appear in the shape of a fraction (1/10), a decimal (0.1), a percentage (10%), or a frequency (1 out of 10). Alternatively, icons can be useful tools to visualise risks. For this, she recommended the open access webpage iconarray.com.

After doing a couple of in-class calculation exercises, multiple students attested: “The way you explain it is way easier than how we did it at school” You could say that Ms Fallon has reached her goal: Making numbers more approachable

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