Summary of Comments from the JPBM Joint Meetings Session

What the Media Look for in a Math Story


1/11/96 Orlando, FL
by Kathleen Holmay

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Back to Articles on the Public Understanding of Math
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Shirish Date, Reporter, Orlando Sentinel

Following the New York Times I represent the Philistines who make up the rest of the country! I'm intrigued at the title of this panel -- "What the Media Look for in a Math Story." The Sentinel covers mathematics professors in sex scandals. I did a database search of the word "mathematics" appearing in our paper and it has appeared 189 times, mostly in K-12 education stories or in stories about politicians, usually making speeches.

We've run six articles about math as field of study: on the pentium chip, Fermat, the Nobel Prize in economics going to John Nash, on the Cold War/jobs drying up topic, and on the prime number story. All six were taken from the New York Times wire. None were written at the Sentinel.

Math is like black magic at newspapers. Newspapers, usually without an agenda, can manipulate statistics so that readers are confused or not well informed. The public doesn't see the relevance of mathematics in their daily lives or they wouldn't buy a $20,000 car at $199 a month! Mathematics faces a fundamental problem - too many people see math stories as a Gary Larson cartoon.


Samantha Eaddy, Public Information Officer, U. of Central Florida

I also looked up math coverage in our university database going back 10 years and found 100-150 articles. Our focus was primarily on the faculty making math more fun and on K-12 education.

The American public regards mathematics as too hard. We must change that perception in order to get the coverage mathematics deserves. We are a microwave society and people want things that are easy. Math concepts must be broken down and presented to people in ways that have everyday relevance. Mathematics must be tied to other interesting topics and stories. How can this be done?


Keith Devlin, Saint Mary's College, Moraga, CA

Reporters work on deadlines and rely on ready sources. You must be able to speak at the last minute, coherently, in order to work with reporters. I keep our public information person constantly informed about what we're doing. I don't try to judge the relevance of each story; she does that.

An example is that holograms were being developed at St. Mary's. The public information person took a whole different angle on the story than I ever would have envisioned. She focused on the angle of some equipment donated by a major company and got the holograms in the news.

Another example was that at a new Barnes and Noble bookstore in the area, there were over 8 feet of mathematics books. I told our public information person about this and she developed a story on a local person who had written three of the books in the math section. (Ed: This person is Keith Devlin.)

The bottom line here is to be willing to let another aspect of a story take center stage while the math rides on the back of it. Taking a different focus often gets math covered in the news.

 

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