What’s journalism without… math?

Walk into a college lecture hall filled with journalism majors and ask the students sitting in front of you to raise their hands if they hate math. I can almost guarantee you that every single hand will be raised. It’s no secret that us word folk aren’t exactly fans of those things you call numbers and equations.

What is a secret, one that Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll has been aware of for a number of years, is that however scary math and number analysis can seem on the surface, in reality, understanding those numbers can do wonders for the average newspaper story.

“Database journalism is important and understanding Excel can give you big boost,” said Carroll, who is the brain behind the “Mass Facts” section on Boston.com. Carroll has used his number knowledge to analyze everything from the percentage of male school teachers in Massachusetts school districts to how many Dunkin Donuts each MA town really has.

Some of these numbers may seem irrelevant – who cares how many Dunkin Donuts actually exist in Weymouth, right? But when working on larger articles, especially investigative pieces, numbers can add a great deal of weight to a story.

Carroll showed our class how to use Many Eyes, a free online tool for displaying data sets. The site allows anybody to upload data sets and display them graphically in a multitude of ways. Once uploaded, these sets become public domain, but the results are visually fascinating. Check out this map, which shows the percentage of the United States work force that are employed fashion designers.  Along the same lines but displayed completely differently, here is a bubble chart that displays the number of fashion designers, by city, in the US.

“It changes your viewpoint,” explained Carroll in regards to his use of numbers. “Nobody else had these numbers. Nobody else thought to look at them.”


April 4, 2010. Uncategorized.

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