Journalists have a love-hate relationship with statistics. We need them, to be sure. They help us give context to the story of one person or community, to better understand a problem or hold a public official accountable, or even, occasionally, to entertain. (Did you know, for example, that at any given time, roughly 0.7 percent of the world's population is drunk?)
The world is awash in numbers, and journalists aren't always specialists. At the International Conference on Family Planning in Dakar, Senegal, the Pulitzer Center held a press conference to help journalists think strategically about how to find relevant statistics – and figure out if they're good enough to use.
There was a wealth of expertise to draw on at the conference, which gathered more than 2,000 doctors, public health workers and other experts to talk about family planning issues worldwide. The Pulitzer Center tapped into this opportunity to bring together Bill Finger, the associate director of the Progress Project at FHI360; Jay Gribble, the vice president of international programs at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB); and Nirali Shah, research advisor for reproductive health at Population Services International (PSI).
So, from our experts to you, for that moment you need that one perfect datum, here are three tips:
Data is everywhere. PSI collects data on condom usage and contraceptive choices around the world because they sell condoms. But the group makes that data available to others, including journalists, who may be interested in different questions. The point? If you want to find a number for something, chances are someone's got one.
Data is easy to confuse – and manipulate. It's not just that you might make a math error, or be tempted to choose a number that better suits your story (though you shouldn't do either of those things, of course). It's that words you use to talk about the numbers can also be prone to error. If the risk of HIV in a given country jumps from 12 to 24 percent in one year, did it double? Finger says the answer isn't necessarily yes. Choose your words carefully, and then check them with an expert.
Data isn't always – or, really, ever – perfect. Finger talked about how data can sometimes conflict. One conference presenter, he said, showed that a survey of a local community in Ethiopia put the portion of population with access to contraception at 40 percent. But the Demography and Health Survey (DHS) of Ethiopia puts it at 29 percent. "So if you're writing about contraception in Ethiopia, which do you choose?" he asked. "There is a right answer." Finger recommended the DHS because of its reputation. This survey, conducted every five years in most countries around the world, has a long track record. In the family planning world, it's the gold standard for these kinds of numbers.
But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Shah pointed out that at five year intervals, DHS data can get old. Some years, some countries may be left out. And there may be questions that the survey doesn't answer.
What's the takeaway? Finding the best source takes vetting. To find out whose numbers you should be using, ask the experts. Take a look at the methodology yourself and ask questions about that, too. But don't just take the first number you come across. Even if it's funny. That thing about 0.7 percent of the population being drunk? It's all over the Internet, but it is probably, alas, made up.
Here are a few sources of useful (and legitimate) data for journalists covering family planning issues:
Data Finder, from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), allows you to search internationally, by country or region, or to browse topically. The finder searches demographic, economic, environmental, health and other data, from outside sources like the DHS or the U.S. Census, and from PRB's own research.
World Health Organization, the international global health agency, keeps copious statistics on virtually everything.
Population Services International publishes easy to read research briefs from their data and creates online tools, like calculators, for calling up and analyzing statistics.
The Human Development Index, a yearly compendium by the UN Development Program of health, education and socio-economic statistics, among others, drawn from multiple sources. If you want to know how many people have access to the Internet in a given country, or how many kilometers of paved roads it has, or how happy its citizens are, this is the place to look.