You aren’t qualified to be a professional journalist
Alberto Cairo
252

Hi, Alberto.

I’m a data editor in a regional newsroom. In many ways, where I work is the foil of the message here and of many others lobbed over the fence at the faceless, retrograde beat reporter.

I’m critical of your post even while fully agreeing with its goals, and what’s more, having worked very hard toward them with the reporters I think you mean.

At The Dallas Morning News, I’m the benefactor of a newsroom with a high standard for numeracy I inherited from Jennifer LaFleur, Holly Hacker, Daniel Lathrop and many others who championed basic statistical literacy. I am proud of the numerate work that is done in our newsroom, and yet I know a solid share of our staff would fail the fealty test in this post.

I know that, because I did once. Flummoxed in my first interview for a data internship, I couldn’t recall the formula. It just escaped me. A year later I was recognized by the Royal Statistical Society for an investigative series I did in Belfast. Point being, I’m very glad I wasn’t credentialed according to the standard here.

I realize you mean more a spirit than a letter of law, but my critical take is this: I think the exclusionary fervor here, frankly, serves better the critic than the audience that needs the message.

Here’s the alternative tack we take in our newsroom: We teach that numeracy like good health is a habit built up over time. We work with reporters week in and week out toward that goal from wherever they are. We rarely get time in to teach them between their deadlines and have learned not to squander it on pronouncements. The vast majority of them are eager to learn. But we also don’t tell our reporters they aren’t reporters because we need some of their charity, too, to address each other as peers.

A few weeks ago, some photographers in our newsroom invited me to help judge a photo contest. I am not a photographer, but they were interested in my perspective. I may have contributed little — maybe nothing — but I came away with so much more. It is already helping me do what I do better.

Had those photographers taken your line, had my newsroom, I would be a poorer, more specialized journalist. I realize that is quite opposite your goal, and that is why I’m telling you.

Look, I come to this post within the limits of my experience, which is predominantly in a mid-sized newsroom in Dallas. And as I said, in the long game, I’m solidly on the side of universal numeracy. I work hard towards it. I even like the books on your list.

My final criticism of your post is very simple and from my limited perspective but one I wish you thought of more routinely: It doesn’t much help me in my newsroom.

Respectfully.

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