14.14 Numeracy Skills

Communications professionals generally think of themselves as “word nerds” rather than number wizards. For that reason, many communicators suffer from “innumeracy,” the numerical equivalent to illiteracy. As we said at the start of this lesson, because we are so awash in number-based claims and information, it is crucial that ALL communicators have basic skills in interpreting and evaluating numerical data. But certain types of tasks within mass communication demand more than simple familiarity.

Journalists’ Uses of Numeracy Skills

  • Those who are interested in data-based reporting have a special responsibility to make sure their number skills are top notch. There are entire texts and courses devoted to teaching journalists how to use number-based information and computer programs for analysis of data in news.

  • Journalists who cover science and medicine also have need for high-level skill in interpreting data based on statistical claims and evidence. Journalists who cover politics and economics are also required to interpret and evaluate the hundreds of studies, reports, and documents the agencies of government continually provide. Something as seemingly straightforward as a city budget or the monthly federal unemployment statistics are actually fraught with many potential traps for communicators with innumeracy problems.

  • Politicians and economists like to point to the certainty of one set of numbers or another. The problem is that many of these precise numbers and reports are precisely wrong, and our understanding of politics and economics remains imprecise at best. Journalists can protect themselves by asking for all of the numbers from a report or study, and making their own judgments about whether they are appropriate for drawing the conclusions the experts have drawn.

Strategic Communicators’ Uses of Numeracy Skills

  • Advertising professionals use data in claims about product effectiveness, rates of satisfaction with a product or service, product comparisons, and many other types of assertions. It is easy to fall into misleading use of numbers in ad copy. Be sure that you can substantiate any number-based claims, as the various advertising self-regulatory bodies require this. Also, ask how the provider of the figures came up with those numbers–what do they mean?

For example, an advertiser of an electric juice extractor once claimed that the juicer “extracts 26 percent more juice” but failed to say what the comparison was. It turned out that the extractor provided 26 percent more juice than if someone used an old-fashioned hand juicer. But the relevant comparison would have stated how the advertised product compared with other electric juicers.

  • Advertising professionals also use number-based information in evaluating audience characteristics and the characteristics of specific media vehicles through which a message reaches the audience. An entire area of advertising work called media planning and media buying is heavily number-based. These professionals need to know how to read tables of numbers, how to calculate reach and frequencies, cost-per-thousands, and many other figures. This requires nothing more than simple arithmetic and high school math, but those who seek to do this type of work must be comfortable with numbers.