How journalists can overcome math anxiety


Math Gnomes 2 by Alkelda CC BY-NC-ND

Eliza Partika decided that math was not for her during the last math test she took in high school. Although she had been placed in advanced mathematics classes since middle school, she had never been on good terms with the subject. Even when she understood the concepts discussed in class, it was still easy to make mistakes.

But Partika had to face numbers again in the fall of 2020, when she began her master’s in multimedia journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. For one assignment, she had to use programs and coding to analyze California’s unemployment rates. Partika found herself “trying to remember how to do math,” she says. “And it’s a little embarrassing sometimes, because I’m 23—I should know these things.”

It’s a feeling I can relate to. Advanced math makes me feel like I’m being chased by hounds through deep snow.

Partika and I aren’t alone. Many journalists—from novices to experienced pros—feel anxiety when their work requires them to deal with statistics, data, or even simple arithmetic.

Yet numbers are integral to journalism, especially when reporting about trends, finance and economics, and, of course, scientific research. Writing tight, evidence-based stories requires at least some comfort with numbers—and checking their accuracy.

“If we ignore talking about math anxiety, then people just ignore putting numbers in their stories,” says Kayt Davies, who teaches journalism at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “Without the hard data, you’re left with just an opinion about this is important or that’s important.”

Math anxiety may seem insurmountable, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent condition. Think of it as a problem you can solve.


What Causes Math Anxiety?

From childhood, we are told—most often by parents and teachers—that some people are good at math and some are not. Hearing from a young age that you are a “words person” can heighten your anxiety about math. As a result, you may avoid it, which can reinforce negative self-perceptions.

Hearing from a young age that you are a “words person” can heighten your anxiety about math. As a result, you may avoid it.

Fiona Hernandez, an undergraduate journalism student at the State University of New York at Albany, has had a similar bad relationship with math. She never liked math, and even remembers how once, a math teacher politely told her mother that Hernandez worked hard, but he could tell that math was not one of her best subjects. She appreciated that he recognized her effort—but to this day she isn’t on good terms with math. Today, Hernandez says, “When I look at these big numbers or percentages, they overwhelm me.”

Even those who are relatively good at math can experience math anxiety. In 2003, Scott Maier, a journalist and professor at the University of Oregon, tested staff (including journalists, graphic artists, and copyeditors) in one newsroom on their math ability and math anxiety levels. The competency test covered elementary math concepts like addition and subtraction as well as percentages, probability, and averages. Overall, the journalists on the news staff performed at an average or above-average level. At the same time, though, the news staff reported levels of math anxiety similar to those of at-risk college students. (You can take an online competency test for journalists yourself here.)


Who Gets Told They’re Bad at Math?

Although the stereotype that men are better than women at math and science is well-known, researchers are divided on exactly how identity factors are related to math anxiety. Some research suggests that stereotype threat—the fear that one will conform to a negative stereotype—affects the math anxiety of commonly stereotyped groups (such as women and people of color, and especially those who are both). However, not all studies indicate that stereotype threat actually affects math anxiety, and one review of the literature on stereotype threat even questions how it works at all.

Nevertheless, “it’s a quite clear fact that people of color are underrepresented in fields of math and science,” says Laura López González, an award-winning Chicana science-and-health journalist based in South Africa. Like others, she thinks it may be rooted in childhood, “whether it’s the fact that you don’t see role models that look like you … [or] whether it’s teachers that don’t invest in you because you don’t look like the type of person who would do STEM.”

López González has experienced math anxiety from the time she was young, although she had strong Latino STEM role models in her family and grew up in a school system with many services for minority students. In her school district, however, students got placed on a track in advanced math classes from middle school onwards, and without those courses, it’s hard to get into a university STEM program. López González remembers how her own lack of advanced math classes in high school kept her from being able to take geology courses at her university. “If you come from a community with low college rates or are first-generation, who tells you this?” she says. “Who knows enough to go down to your school and fight for you to be given the chance to at least try to test into those classes?”


What Kinds of Math Do Science Writers Use, Anyway?

For better or worse, using numbers in journalism can be very different than going through exercises in a math textbook. In science stories, math helps the reader understand real-world phenomena, such as explaining how Arctic ice melts or how the R-naught number (which describes how contagious an infectious disease is) is calculated.

In science stories, math helps the reader understand real-world phenomena.

López González says that journalists mostly need to be comfortable with basic math and statistics concepts, such as calculating mean, median, and mode, and understanding rates, proportions, and percentages. It can also help to keep an eye out for numbers that just sound wrong—like whether a particular company’s profits might be in the millions or billions.

Science writers often have to face more-complex math when they delve into scientific studies, especially when reporting on math-heavy fields such as physics. For stories on medical studies, you likely need to be comfortable with more advanced statistics.


Translating Numbers

You might experience a sense of panic when you look at pages of numbers in a scientific study. According to Regina Nuzzo, a statistics professor, freelance science writer, and senior advisor in statistics communication and media innovation at the American Statistical Association, there’s a reason for that.

“Numbers and quantity and randomness, magnitudes, all of these things are very difficult for human brains to deal with.” The secret, she says, is to find “tips and tricks and tools” that can work for your brain.

Nuzzo teaches statistics to PhD students—some of whom have math anxiety—and has found that it helps to focus on concepts rather than abstract equations. For instance, she connects the statistics learned in class to things in her students’ everyday lives, from making decisions to the lottery to opinion polls. Similarly, she believes it helps journalists to convey numbers in words or concrete concepts whenever possible. For example, Nuzzo says, it sometimes helps to think in terms of a “decade” or “century” instead of using numbers such as “10 years” or “100 years,” or using the phrase “nearly three-quarters” instead of “73 percent.”

Connecting abstract math to concrete, real-world examples helped Jennifer Ouellette, a freelance science writer and senior reporter at Ars Technica, when she took on a task that might feel dizzying: She decided to teach herself, as she chronicled in her book The Calculus Diaries. Ouellette, who writes in her book about having “a lingering phobia about math,” began her calculus adventure with the lecture series Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear, which is offered by The Great Courses, as well as a few easy-to-understand books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus by W. Michael Kelly, The Calculus Wars by Jason Bardi, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, and A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski. She also tried exercises assigned to her by her physicist husband.

But what really worked was challenging herself to see calculus in real-world experiences, from playing craps in Las Vegas to exercising on an elliptical machine. Ouellette compared this approach to taking apart a mechanical toy and figuring out how to put it back together again. As she writes, “the process teaches you more about how that toy works than simply reading a description about its operation.”


Check Your Math—and Your Source’s

Making numbers and equations more concrete can work even at the micro level of verifying math or doing equations for stories. Nicola Twilley is a science writer who frequently contributes to The New Yorker, hosts an award-winning podcast, and is currently writing one book and co-authoring another. She has always struggled with math—but she has found some strategies to help her navigate numbers.

For instance, Twilley often writes out or thinks about calculations in words. She says the technique is particularly useful when calculating percentage change, in which she literally writes out the logic of the equation in words. “If the sentence looks wrong, that gives me a clue that my math is probably wrong,” says Twilley. There are various guides and practice exercises online for turning math equations into words and vice versa, like these from study sites VirtualNerd and Expii. One example from Expii: Instead of 3x – 8, you can think of it as 8 less than 3x, or 3x decreased by 8. However, the technique may not work for every writer or every situation.

If you do not find turning equations into words helpful, you can try dividing a complicated math problem into smaller steps.

If you do not find turning equations into words helpful, you can try dividing a complicated math problem into smaller steps. BBC Skillswise recommends a four-step method—read and understand the problem, work out what calculations you have to do, do the calculations, and then check the answer. This method also involves writing out what an equation requires of you, such as beginning with, “This equation is about employment. I have to work out how much the employment rate increased over five years,” and continuing with, “This equation involves addition” (or multiplication, or whatever operation is appropriate.)

However, when it comes to reporting on studies, you aren’t doing the math yourself—you’re trying to get a sense of whether the numbers add up to the researchers’ conclusions. Ouellette says that she’s learned to spot certain red flags in scientific studies that don’t have to do with the math itself, such as extraordinary claims that are counter to findings that have come before. Sometimes, pages of equations in a study can even be a smokescreen to hide false or exaggerated claims. So if you don’t understand the math, it might not be you.

One area that can be tricky in interpreting study results is statistical significance. For example, the p-value—a common statistical-significance test—refers to how likely it would be to get a result at least as extreme as you did in a study by random chance). Since statistical significance deals with probabilities and not certainty, there’s always a chance that a statistically significant result really was just random chance, and thus you end up with a false positive result. Small samples in particular can be a red flag, because they are more likely to result in a false positive. What makes a sample “small” can vary, because different data-collection methods require different sample sizes—it’s best to consult a statistician to see if the study you’re looking at has a big enough sample size.

Added to that, a result may be highly statistically significant (very unlikely to occur if there were no effect in the real-world population)—but the result itself may be very small and inconsequential in the real world. When interviewing scientists about studies that present results in the form of statistics, Nuzzo believes it’s also important to ask about the effect size of the results in context. This can help spot whether “statistically significant” results actually have a noticeable impact in the real world. Nuzzo once wrote about a study that found married couples who met online had better marital outcomes than those who met offline. Although the result was statistically significant, the actual result (the difference in marital outcomes between the two groups) was only 2 percent.

You + Others = Success

In cases where the effect size may seem low or suspicious, it helps to consult a statistician to verify what this percentage looks like in the real world. Even Nuzzo, a statistician herself, consulted another statistician about the results of the online dating study (who was not affiliated with the study itself). The statistician concluded that 2 percent amounted to only one additional break-up per every 100 marriages among the couples who met offline.

Asking for help from colleagues, managers, or sources when dealing with numbers, figures, and statistics can reduce anxiety and help journalists understand and verify their math. Davies, of Curtin University, likes to have students work together on exercises in interpreting data.

She also practices what she preaches. During her first job as a reporter in a newspaper’s business section, would ask experts or professionals in the business field to explain certain concepts to her. “I talk to my students about the fact that it’s not only what you know that is valuable. It’s what you don’t know, because what you don’t know drives you to ask questions, and then you can be the sort of person who really test-drives the answer.”

But when you’re clarifying complicated figures with sources, resist the temptation to put yourself down by saying you don’t understand math. Instead, Davies recommends that journalists ask sources to explain figures or statistics so that readers will be able to understand. “I don’t frame it as, ‘I’m bad at math.’ I frame this as, ‘I want to be really careful that I’m being accurate,’” says Davies. “I’ve found that that approach universally leads to people being helpful.”

And that doesn’t just mean asking researchers who worked on a study to talk you through their math. You can also reach out to a new source specifically for that purpose. Nuzzo often talks with journalists who want help understanding studies—sometimes they’ll even show her paragraphs from their drafts to check whether they’ve interpreted a study correctly (though it’s smart to check with your editor to make sure that’s OK).

Even Evelyn Lamb, a freelance science writer with a PhD in mathematics, relies on help from sources when dealing with complicated math for a story or math outside her own field of specialization. Not all sources may be willing to explain complex mathematics to journalists, but “I think something that people might not realize is how much mathematicians want to help other people understand math and understand why they enjoy it,” Lamb says.

When talking to sources, both Lamb and Twilley will often summarize their source’s points right back to them, so their sources can check their understanding and spot any errors. Editors and fact-checkers can also be excellent backups for verifying your math. Twilley often flags math in her stories for her editor or fact-checkers, with whom she often talks on the phone to walk them through her lines of thinking.


Exercise That Math Muscle

It’s not just complicated statistics that can be overwhelming—many of us also get nervous about basic arithmetic. But that’s something you can improve with time and practice, no math textbook required. Adding up the total price of groceries without a calculator allows you to work on your mental math abilities. Games are another way to improve your math skills. Davies remembers improving her mental math speed when playing the card game Yu-Gi-Oh with her then-teenage son. For getting familiar with statistics, Nuzzo personally recommends the board game Borel, in which players bet on the results of simple experiments using dice; the game is designed to introduce players to the world of probabilities. “Engaging with math in a fun way is more of a recipe for success than trying to treat it like a math class where you need to learn it, or else,” says Nuzzo.

Nuzzo also recommends getting familiar with numbers by skimming publications that use a lot of math, such as the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Repeated exposure to numbers in a low-stakes situation, she believes, can help reduce anxiety. Many popular-science books can also introduce readers to various fields of math through fascinating histories and real-life events. (Ouellette includes many of these in The Calculus Diaries.) For the field of statistics, Nuzzo recommends The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, The Cult of Statistical Significance by Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey, and The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg.

Online resources can also help people of all skill levels become more comfortable with math. Many journalism associations and institutions, such as the Society of Professional Journalists and Harvard University’s Journalist’s Resource, publish tip sheets, links, and reports to help journalists understand and incorporate math and numbers into their stories. Whether for personal development or academic credit, short courses also allow for more in-depth, interactive training in using statistics, data, and math in storytelling. Free or cheap mobile applications can also improve your mental math skills and help you learn more-advanced mathematical concepts, from statistics to trigonometry and calculus.

Even if math will never be your strong suit, there are many ways to work through and around numbers so that they don’t stop you from writing great stories.

Social media, too, can be a valuable resource for immersing oneself in math-related content that is easy to understand, accompanied by graphics, and often entertaining. Davies recommends exploring YouTube for videos that help explain mathematical concepts. Math-related pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can also help you get more acquainted with math in bite-sized chunks.

Whatever resources you find work best for you, the key is to realize that math anxiety and math ability don’t have to be barriers to thriving in science journalism. Even if math will never be your strong suit, there are many ways to work through and around numbers so that they don’t stop you from writing great stories. “I’m never going to be comfortable with maths and I fully made my peace with that, and it doesn’t stop me,” says Twilley.

Ouellette felt much the same after two years of learning calculus, writing in the epilogue of The Calculus Diaries that she doesn’t love calculus, nor is she fluent in it. But learning it has helped enhance her understanding of physics, the area of science she specializes in as a writer—and has reduced the crippling fear and negative knee-jerk reaction she used to get at the sight of calculus problems.

I finally had to confront my fear of numbers when taking an introductory math course as an undergraduate and a statistics course as part of my master’s degree. Although math can still be a struggle, I don’t hate it as much as I used to. Numbers have a certain elegance and order to them, and they can give us a layer of truth and verification that anecdotes can’t on their own. As Maier says: “More often than not, numbers lead to good stories, and sometimes to Pulitzer Prizes and other awards that take journalists far in their careers.”


This article was originally published on June 15, 2021, by The Open Notebook.

Tatiana Harkiolakis is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Athens, Greece.

She is director of communications at Executive Coaching Consultants and publishes two travel-and-culture blogs, The Inquiring Traveler’s Notebook and The Athenian Site. She is currently completing an MSc in media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @TatianaHark.