Can the News Help You Learn Statistics?

A broad swath of news requires at least some statistical literacy. We’re studying whether and how news outlets can help.

by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein
Aug 29, 2019

What We’re Doing

Familiarity with mathematical concepts and skills, particularly statistical literacy and data literacy, is a prerequisite for participation in many areas of modern life. News stories are pervasive in contemporary culture, many presenting data and evidence on the assumption that audiences will understand the meaningfulness of the content. Mathematical concepts are embedded in a wide range of news stories – not only economics and science reporting, but also reporting on politics, weather, and social trends.

American adults have lower math literacy (also known as numeracy) than adults in other developed countries. How do adults continue to build numeracy outside formal schooling? There has been relatively little research thus far.

How do efforts to improve journalists’ numeracy translate into broader public numeracy? Do they? The studies that have explored journalists’ numeracy have not always looked at the impact on the public.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, we’re working with PBS NewsHour to:

  1. Study the prevalence of statistics in the news
  2. Study differences in adults’ confidence and competence with statistics
  3. Produce news content that supports adults in gaining confidence and competence

Some Further Reading

Franklin, C., Kader, G., Mewborn, D., Moreno, J., Peck, R., Perry, M., & Scheaffer, R. (2007). Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) Report: A Pre-K-12 Curriculum Framework. Alexandria, VA: American Statistical Association.

This framework recognizes that “[e]very high school graduate should be able to use sound statistical reasoning to intelligently cope with the requirements of citizenship, employment, and family” (p. 1).

Gal, I. (2002). Adults’ statistical literacy: Meanings, components, responsibilities. International Statistical Review, 70(1), 1-51.

We start from Gal’s definition because he emphasizes statistical information and probability in context.

Whitaker, D., Foti, S., & Jacobbe, T. (2015). The Levels of Conceptual Understanding in Statistics (LOCUS) project: Results of the pilot study. Numeracy, 8(2). DOI:

This set of widely accepted instruments are designed for use in high school and are based on the GAISE framework (Franklin et al., above).

Recent NewsHour stories featuring statistical concepts

The hotter the planet grows, the less children are learning

Most Americans support these 4 types of gun legislation, poll says

The new definition of the kilogram will change the way we weigh everything

How our food is grown and consumed is making climate change worse. What can we do?

Deep dish or New York style? How pi can solve your pizza order

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

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