Among Medill Journalism Graduate Students: Barack Obama & Chicago Cubs Both Reign

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking to 55 graduate students at my alma mater, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The topic was “Journalism By the Numbers,” so I shared some pointers on numeracy—using numbers with common sense and context in story telling.

As part of my presentation, I coordinated with adjunct lecturer Desiree Hanford to conduct a survey that asked students about Chicago’s two Major League Baseball teams’ playoff chances and their current preference in the national presidential election.

Considering the students’ ages (with a few exceptions, they were born in the early-to mid-1980s) and the Democratic Party bent of most journalists, I didn’t think Barack Obama would face much of a challenge from John McCain in this gathering.

But the overwhelming nature of the landslide somewhat surprised me: Obama routed McCain, 47-2.

(Three said they are undecided, two said they are unable to vote because they are international students, and one declined to answer: “a journalist never tells,” the student wrote, doodling a smiley face.)

If I were to commit one of the numeracy no-nos that I rail against—settling for percentage claims without digging into the raw data—I could claim that journalism grad students who plan to vote for McCain possess a much more optimistic outlook about the Cubbies (100 percent all the way!) than those who plan to pick Obama (only 60 percent say the team will win it all).

That’s because both McCain supporters (sample size: a whopping two) think the Cubs will win the World Series. Among the 47 Obama backers, 38 predict the Cubs will advance to the World Series, with 28 projecting a Cubs’ title.

White Sox fans (and that includes the South Side-residing Obama, reportedly): These students don’t give your team much hope. Only 17 Obama supporters predicted a World Series appearance, with a mere two in that group forecasting a World Series victory.

Meanwhile, McCain’s two backers don’t see the White Sox making it to the Series at all. This is likely a clear-eyed assessment, since the team hasn’t even made the playoffs yet, with a one-game showdown with the Minnesota Twins scheduled for tonight.

Go Figure Goes to Medill

Yesterday I had the good fortune of speaking at my alma mater for the third time since last autumn. (Pictured is me, as a bearded wonder, during my first such talk in November 2007.)

At the invitation of Ceci Rodgers, adjunct professor of economics and business reporting, I spoke to a “Journalism By the Numbers” class for grad students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Adapted from my seven-year-old workshop, Go Figure: Making Numbers Count, the point that I drive home more than any other is the importance of using numbers in context.

All too often, the stories we tell are loaded with stats in a vacuum–leaving the reader to guess as to their significance. Instead, as story-tellers, whether journalist, publicist or any other role, we need to take the time to truly understand the relevance of a given number and then communicate it clearly to our audience.

What about you–what irks you most about how the media uses (and misuses) numbers?

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