During the Online News Association conference this year in my home state of Georgia, the ONA leadership team asked me to speak as part of a panel by AP-Google scholars. I decided to use my seven-minute pulpit for one massive rant against something that has resulted in complications for me in many sections of my professional life, including job prospects, class scheduling and my research on women in computing for the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship.
Journalists hate math. It’s a common myth and one that I hear often. I’ve heard it from journalism students when I suggest to them they learn a little coding: “That’s cool for you, but I don’t think I could do that. I’ve always been bad at math.” I’ve heard it from top investigative reporters even: “I leave the number-crunching to others. I went into journalism because I hated math!” This is usually followed by a laugh.
Well, guess what? I’m not laughing, people.
The belief that journalists hate math is part of a larger over-arching belief in education that is cemented early on. It’s part of the “hidden curriculum” — everything you learn in school about culture, society and your own abilities that isn’t part of science, language arts, math or history. We are taught that each of our brains are divided right down the middle. The left side is everything analytical. The right side is everything creative. Also, EVERYONE has a dominant side. This notion of the dominant side will then go on to completely shape how you think about your own abilities, your confidence in your skill set and your career path.
The left side might as well be blue and the right side might as well be pink. Girls are often praised for their creativity or writing ability. Boys are more often praised for their abilities in science and math. As a result, they are more confident, enjoy those subjects more, work harder in those subjects and surpass their peers over many years.
Even if you have high test scores in both math and language arts as a child, a teacher, a parent or a family member will pick a side for you on this impossible to cross fence. And there you go. Might as well write your future in stone at age eight.
Most journalists grew up as “right brain” people. Even if a journalist was fine at math early on, all the confidence disparity and reinforcement pushes that journalist to believe she couldn’t do a calculus problem to save her life by the time she enters college.
If you’d like to see the slides that go along with this rant, they are below.
This left brain, right brain nonsense isn’t good for journalists. Why?
1. Data journalism and code journalism are becoming increasingly important. Because of the myth that journalists are bad at math, incoming journalists are scared out of trying anything new in these areas because of a fear that they will not be successful. How could they? They’ve always been “word people.” Several studies in computer science show confidence is actually a better predictor for if a woman will stay in the major than her ability in computer science. Confidence matters.
2. It hurts our credibility. You wouldn’t want an accountant who claims to be bad at math doing your taxes. In that same vein, why would I trust a profession that widely claims that its members went into said profession because THEY HATE MATH to perform mathematical operations (data journalism) and then use the results of those operations to try and change my belief about something.
3. It adds an untouchable, unicorn-quality to journalists doing both coding and journalism. The barriers make gaining these qualifications more difficult. They also make it very difficult to find a job using both skills because you don’t fit into a coder box or a writer box. There is no unicorn box and usually the more profitable coding skills win.
This right brain, left brain dichotomy doesn’t make sense in journalism or in other contexts. To be good at anything, you need to use analytical skills AND creativity.
In music, a performer must have analytics to play through scales, memorize keys and calculate rhythms. Reading or writing music is analytical. A great performer must also be creative in her movements, in how her bow glides over the strings, in the volume she plays.
The same is true in sports. Football players need to know the drills and the movements of other players, but they also need to be creative and to improvise on the field.
A successful journalist needs both the analytical and the creative too. Traditionally, journalism has been thought of as more of a “right brain” skill. Most journalists would probably admit they enjoyed writing over math in school, but journalism is highly analytical (read: science-y).
Let’s look at the scientific method and the way we report our stories.
Almost the same. And look what else this process resembles:
Journalists are more like the “math folk” than we care to admit.
Conclusion: realize you need both the analytical and the creative to be good at anything, especially journalism, and stop saying you hate math. Seriously, stop it. Stop it. I beg you.