April 20, 2018

Half of three people agree with me

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Numbers

Numbers (Photo credit: RichardBowen)

I read in a Scottish national newspaper yesterday that “The National Union of Journalists said that 99 per cent of the 50 BBC members who attended a meeting in Glasgow today called on the corporation to resign fully from the CBI.”

Interesting, and what was also interesting was that none of the comments added by readers at the end of the article seemed to pick on the fact that there was something a bit funny about the statistic quoted in that article.

So what has all this to do with economics? Actually quite a lot. First, there is often a mismatch between supply and demand in the journalism labour market. Imagine the job interview; “so you want to be a journalist because you love words and creative writing, which is why you have a Masters degree in 14th Century Italian poetry. Great, we have a piece that has to be written tomorrow on the implications of nanotechnology for mobile user operability, When can you start?”

If you think I am exaggerating, if I am then it is only slightly. I know of one prominent national television journalist who switched from business to technology correspondent overnight and whose higher education background had been in languages. When he was appointed technology correspondent he rather disarmingly countered the obvious criticism that he had no clear qualifications in technology by agreeing with it (he actually is quite a good presenter, as his dealing with criticism showed – but are there really no technology specialists who could have been tooled up to do the same presentational job?).

Then there is another economic concept, scarcity, in this case the scarce resource can be time. Journalists, especially print journalists in a world of declining demand for newspapers, are often under pressure to do more and more with less and less, and to do it by midnight. So the temptation to just grab a press release off the Internet and summarise it with a few headline numbers can be overwhelming.

The result is that numbers are often presented denuded of context or explanation; price changes are quoted without explanation as to whether they are in real or nominal terms, stock market changes are given in absolute and not percentage terms, and so on. Probably the most used and abused number concept in the history of journalism is “the average”, a poor, innocent and useful term that does not deserve the mind-numbing torturing it has to endure at the hands of numerically challenged scribes, in many cases the same torturers who report opinion polls with statements such as “Party A has a 1% lead over Party B”.

No it has not, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the implications of sample sizes and margins of error could testify.

The bottom line is that other core economic concept, value, and where the media culture places a higher value on words rather than numbers, much of this is inevitable – or at least 60% of it is, and 50% isn’t.

Anyway I shared this piece with three colleagues, half of them thought it was fine.

So that’s OK then.