MWAURA: Why journalists stand accused of being numerically incompetent - Daily Nation

Why journalists stand accused of being numerically incompetent

Friday August 17 2018

Newsplex, KCSE 2017

A graphic giving a breaking down of 2017 KCSE results in numbers. Readers expect journalist to have numerical and scientific literacy to do their work properly. DESIGN | LISA MUGUNDA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

In a story headlined “More structures set for demolition” published on Monday, the Nation valued the South End Mall located at the junction of Mbagathi and Lang’ata roads in Nairobi at Sh2 billion. Kimathi Mwirichia took issue with the valuation.

The issue of valuation of property is a science,” he said. “For example, one can consider cash flows expected to emanate from use of the property in perpetuity and discount them to present value to ascertain the value attributable to the asset.”

Saying valuers have their ways of assigning a value to a property, Mr Mwirichia wondered from where journalists get values of property they bandy around for the purpose of news. “What is the basis of this assertion (Sh2 billion value)?


“This is the figure I recall the owner gave the media as the value of the property. If that is indeed the source of your allegation, how can you imbibe subjective information from an interested party hook, line and sinker and feed the same to gullible readers?

“Journalists should always take what owners of property give as values of assets with a pinch of salt. These chaps would invariably inflate values for the purpose of possible compensation and what they give us is devoid of science. It is grossly subjective,” he said.

On the other hand, a story by The Star, “Southend Mall finally brought down,” published on August 9, valued the building at half the price.


In another Nation story the following day headlined “Demolitions: Waititu wants rivers 'moved',” the same figure was repeated by another reporter as if it had become an accepted fact.

The demolition stories have revealed why journalist frequently stand accused of being numerically incompetent, or lacking the ability to question numbers. There were other mathematical concepts that journalists were unable to present simply and meaningfully to readers, in particular the concept of riparian land, the basis for the demolitions.

What is it meant by saying a building is erected “closer than six metres from riparian reserves” or “less than 30 metres from the banks”? What is a “river bank”? What is a “wetland”? How are they measured or determined?


Numeracy can also be looked at as an aspect of scientific literacy. The two skills are the two sides of the same coin. Without those skills journalists cannot do their work properly. Consider a Daily Nation edition in which a photo of an Aedes mosquito was used to illustrate the story “Nakuru health officials on high alert over Malaria outbreak.”

The Aedes, however, as every biology student knows, spreads yellow fever, not malaria, which is spread by the Anopheles mosquito. Aedes usually bites during daytime, but anopheles prefers to bite during the night.

Aedes is shorter in length than Anopheles, which is also more slender than Aedes. Anopheles has spots of black and white scales mainly on the wings but Aedes has black and white stripes all over the body except on the wings. Anopheles rests on your skin ready to bite with its abdomens sticking upwards, whereas Aedes lies parallel to your skin.

Marta Maia, a scientist specialised in insects that transmit diseases working at Kemri in Kilifi, saw the article, and wrote to say it was important to make a correction. “The mosquito that is pictured is not a vector of malaria. Please use pictures of Anopheles mosquitoes as they are morphologically quite different from the one shown in the article… Presenting a correct image will look more professional.”


Readers expect journalist to have numerical and scientific literacy to do their work properly. Innumeracy and scientific illiteracy is inability to do simple calculations, understand mathematical concepts, and lack of skills to question whether concepts are correct. While journalists are not expected to do complex mathematical calculations, they are expected to have enough skills to ask: "Does this number make sense? What does this number mean? Similarly, they are expected to have a scientific outlook, not pander to pseudoscience.

They are expected to understand the numbers and problems we encounter in everyday situations and to ask intelligent questions about these numbers and problems before presenting them to readers.

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