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Math Tools for Journalists ch. 5-8

November 9, 2012

Knowledge of math helps journalists accurately report on issues pertaining to poll and surveys, businesses and property tax. While polls and surveys help communicate the public’s opinion, results can also be manipulated and skewed. According to Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, author of “Math Tools for Journalists,” “it is a reporter’s job to help readers understand the validity of polls and surveys they are reading about” (69). Understanding the significance of the margin of error and confidence levels allows journalists to interpret polls more clearly. Margin of errors are measured in percents, but treated as percentage points. Especially during polls concerning debates, the margin of error is key when reporting who is leading. As Wickham explains, although a poll may indicate one contestant is leading in the polls, the margin of error may reveal there is little statistical difference in the level of the candidates’ support.

It is also important to note that as the confidence level increases, the margin of error increases as well. The confidence level indicates what percentage of the results could be a result of pure chance and helps determine the validity of the findings. Also, polls can be by population sample, cluster sampling, systematic random sampling or quota sampling.

When covering businesses, math skills enable reporters to “access the financial condition of the company” (83) and determine if the business is profitable. Profit and loss statements provide reporters with information to evaluate a business’ expenses and determine the value of the company’s cost of goods sold, overhead and profit. The difference between the cost of goods sold and the selling price indicates the gross margin. Multiplying this difference by the number of products sold produces the gross profit. In order to determine the net profit, one must subtract the “overhead” from the gross profit.

Stocks and bonds allow consumers to purchase a tiny piece of ownership of a company. The value of a company’s stock changes frequently, which requires journalists to be able to read a stock table in order to accurately report the most updated numbers. A stock table indicates the highest and lowest value of the stock in a 52-week period, the company name, the most recent annual dividend a company paid to share holders, the price of the share at the end of the previous day and the change in value.

Bonds help the government raise money for projects. Individuals can purchase bonds to receive a return on the investment. To calculate the current yield of the bond, one must know the interest rate, the face value and the price of the bond.

According to Wickham, stories concerning property tax are worthy of the front page. As a result, it is necessary to understand what the property tax reveals about the community and how it relates to the reader. Property taxes are measured in units called mills, valued at 1/10, and property taxes are expressed as one mill per each dollar. Property taxes are allocated according to the municipality’s budget, meaning taxes to be collected by the government, and the size of each resident’s property, which is measured by the assessed valuation of all property.

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