My boss has a new project for me. The organization’s communications department, which he runs, needs a way to quantify its impact. He asks me if I would kindly develop a framework for measuring our impact and reporting on it. It’s a big job, a complex job, and one that involves a strategic mindset, a knack for puzzling out solutions and a head for numbers. Intrinsically, I have none of these things.
I grin at my boss. “Absolutely,” I say.
I was not always one to embrace a giant spreadsheet. In fact, being one of those exasperating children who always knew what they wanted to do (become the female Kurt Loder and interview the Violent Femmes for MTV, obviously,) I was quite happy with my consistently failing grade in math. Journalists don’t need math, right? They deal with words, not numbers.
Someone should have slapped me.
Later, as a working journalist, I would dread Budget season, knowing I’d have to read and attempt to understand reams of bureaucratic guff, numbers that didn’t always add up and projects that deliberately changed name or department annually to obfuscate the government’s true spending pattern. My knowledge of numbers was so low that I once wrote a story about how funding for a community group had dropped from $23,000 a year (a figure I had pulled from last year’s budget coverage) to just $24, failing to recognize that telltale ‘000 at the top of the column. Did I mention my first editor would sometimes throw dictionaries at my head? In this case, it may have been justified.
My friends became computer scientists and math teachers, and they consistently beat me at card games. They calculated probability, I could only call on Lady Luck. The one time my dear friend and Cribbage rival David tried to explain geometric sequences literally ended in tears.
But somewhere along the line, I met big data. Between the columns of the Census, I read the stories of how my country and its people were changing. I started to grasp what a large and complex problem climate change is (global warming, incidentally, is a near perfect example of exponential function) and how the social determinants of health worked on communities on the largest and most personal of scales. Those numbers that seemed so foreign, those concepts so impenetrable – suddenly, they had power. Sometime in my late 20s, I became a quant.
Nowadays, I am just as likely to be at a data seminar as at a rock show, and spreadsheets cover my desk at work. I have taught about good data practices at conferences in six states, and I wax lyrical about the power of data to anyone who will listen.
Why does it matter if journalists understand data? What is riding on it? Only absolutely everything.
How can readers grasp the immense size and scale of problems like climate change, social injustice, vector-borne diseases, and population pressure if the journalists who write for them don’t understand what they’re reporting on? How can we make good decisions as governments, business leaders and voters if we don’t understand the numbers?
Interestingly, quant has another meaning.
a pole for propelling a barge or punt, especially one with a prong at the bottom to prevent it sinking into the mud.
So I do what I can. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe I have three help files open for every spreadsheet I am working on. But I do it because it’s important. And it all adds up.