Do journalists “hide behind” sources when they use numbers in the news?

Article by Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis: “Numerical information is a central piece of journalism. Just look at how often stories rely on quantitative data — from Covid case numbers to public opinion polling to economics statistics — as their evidentiary backbone. The rise of data journalism, with its slick visualizations and interactives, has reinforced the role and influence of numbers in the news.

But, as B.T. Lawson reminds us in a new article in Journalism Practice, though we have plenty of research on this decade-long boom in data journalism, much of the research “overstates the significance of the data journalist within the news media. Yes, data journalists are now a mainstay of most news organizations, but they are not the only journalists using numbers. Far from it.”

Indeed, in contrast to the 1960s and 70s era of computer-assisted reporting, when a small minority of specialized reporters worked with data but most reporters did not, nowadays virtually all journalists are expected to engage with numbers as part of their work. Which brings up a potential problem: Some research suggests that journalists rarely challenge the numbers they receive, leading them to accept and reproduce the discourse around those numbers from their sources.

To get a clearer picture of how journalists draw on numbers and narratives about them, Lawson examined reporters’ use of numbers in their coverage of seven humanitarian crises in 2017. The author did this in two ways: first through a content analysis of 978 news articles from U.K. news media (to look for some direct or indirect form of challenging statistics, cross-verifying one claim relative to another, etc.), and then through interviews with 16 journalists involved in at least one of those stories, to gain additional insights into the process of receiving and reporting on numbers.

The title of the resulting article — “Hiding Behind Databases, Institutions and Actors: How Journalists Use Statistics in Reporting Humanitarian Crises” — indicates something about one of its findings: namely, that journalists covering humanitarian crises rely heavily on numbers, often provided by NGOs or the UN, but they seldom verify the numbers they use, mainly because they see it as outside their role to do such work and because they “hide behind” the perceived credibility of their sources….(More)”