Making Sense of Data in the Media

Learn what numbers reveal, when and why they mislead, and how to spot fake news.

  • Duration 3 weeks
  • Weekly study 3 hours
  • Learn Free
  • Extra benefits From $39 Find out more

How can we know which numbers to trust?

Increasingly, we’re bombarded with all sorts of data about how society is changing. From opinion poll trends and migration data to economic results and government debt levels.

On this course from the Sheffield Methods Institute at University of Sheffield, we’ll look at ways of cutting through the confusion to decide what numbers reveal, when and why they (sometimes deliberately) mislead, and how to determine what is ‘fake news.’

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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsThink of a number.

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsThink of a bigger number. This number doesn't mean much right now. But if we put it in a newspaper, or on a report, or on the television, or on a chart, it becomes a very important number. This number could tell us if something is too high, too low, too costly or too time consuming. It can tell us if we're doing too much or not enough, if we're a success or a failure, if we're headed for trouble or if the forecast is bright. This number can be a statistic, or a decimal point. It can be a spiraling cost or a massive saving.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 secondsIt can tell us who to vote for, how much we should be paid, or what direction our lives are going in.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsIncreasingly, we are bombarded with all sorts of data

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 secondsabout how society is changing: opinion poll trends, migration data, economic results, government debt levels and MPs' expenses claims. Often the data is presented to boost a sometimes contentious claim. So the ability to read this information with confidence is an increasingly important skill. In this free course from The University of Sheffield, three academics from The Sheffield Methods Institute will ask two simple questions - where do these numbers come from and can they be trusted? We'll look at surveys, polls and other means of data collection, and we'll look at the legitimacy of statistics. When is it okay to believe what you read and when is it not?

Skip to 1 minute and 41 secondsWe'll examine how numbers can be deliberately or accidentally misleading, how they can be sculpted to tell one story or interpreted to hide another. And ultimately, how can you tell who's right? By the end of the course, you will have improved your data literacy skills, developed an understanding of how social statistics are created and used, and become a more critical consumer and user of social and economic data. This course would be ideal for anybody looking to study in the social sciences, anyone who feels bamboozled by the presentation of numbers around them, or anyone who is simply struggling to make sense of data in the media.


  • Week 1

    From 23 Mar 2020

    What is a big number?

    • Welcome to the course

      Mark Taylor, lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the Sheffield Methods Institute, welcomes you to the course and invites you to introduce yourself to your fellow learners.

    • Is that a lot?

      It may sound like a simple question, but often, big numbers can be made to sound small and small numbers can be made to sound big. We look at some of the questions you can ask to find out whether a number or percentage is a lot.

    • Change and differences

      We'll look at the different ways that change and difference can be reported to make a story sound more or less dramatic.

    • Making comparisons

      Sometimes, to understand whether a number is big or not, we need to find other sources of data to compare it to. We'll explain some useful comparisons and show you where you can go to find this type of data.

    • Coming up with a research question

      How you might you do the sort of quantitative research which is behind the news stories? We'll explain how to frame a research question and look at what can happen when they are not framed properly.

  • Week 2

    From 30 Mar 2020

    Where does data come from?

    • Welcome to Week 2

      This week, we’ll find out where statistical and numerical data about society comes from. We’ll pay particular attention to survey data as this is a type of data which is heavily reported in the media.

    • Studying the whole population

      A national census is a rich source of data about society. It provides a socio-demographic snapshot of a society at a given moment in time, and the data that has been chosen to be collected can tell us a lot about that society.

    • Studying a sample of the population

      The census is a rich source of statistical and numerical data about society, but how can we find out about a society's opinions, behaviours, attitudes or preferences? A survey is a research method that gathers this type of data.

    • Collecting survey data

      The way you conduct your survey, and the people you choose to be part of it, will affect the results you get. In this activity, we’ll look at the different ways that surveys can be conducted and the impact this has on the results.

    • When do you need a survey?

      It can be difficult to know when to conduct a survey and when to rely on data that is already in the public domain. We'll help you to understand when a survey is needed and show you reliable sources of data for when it's not.

  • Week 3

    From 6 Apr 2020

    How can we interpret data?

    • Welcome to Week 3

      This week, we’re going to learn about interpreting data and making decisions about which results to trust. In this first activity, Todd Hartman welcomes you back and explains what's coming up this week.

    • Reading the fine print

      Most reputable organisations will provide some information about the data they publish. This information is crucial for understanding whether we should trust the data. We'll look at some of the important details to look out for.

    • What are we really measuring?

      When it comes to studying people, our measures are often inaccurate and all measures will introduce some degree of error. In this activity, we'll explore how different measures will impact on the quality of the dataset.

    • Correlation is not causation

      We'll learn about the distinction between correlation and causation and introduce you to two key concepts for making sense of data in the media.

    • Final steps

      Congratulations data citizen - you've reached the end of Making Sense of Data in the Media.

When would you like to start?

Most FutureLearn courses run multiple times. Every run of a course has a set start date but you can join it and work through it after it starts. Find out more

  • Available now

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Become a critical consumer of data in the media.
  • Explain how social statistics are created.
  • Evaluate data to make informed decisions about which results to trust.
  • Design a quantitative research project.

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone who wants to know how to make sense of social statistics and economic data in the media.

It will be particularly useful to first-year undergraduate students studying social science, as well as school leavers who are thinking about taking a social science or quantitative social science degree.

What do people say about this course?

This has been an excellent course and the involvement of educators in the discussions has been outstanding.

Paul Morley

Who will you learn with?

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

I'm a senior lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the Sheffield Methods Institute in the University of Sheffield.

Aneta Piekut

Aneta Piekut

I am a sociologist working as a Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the Sheffield Methods Institute, the University of Sheffield, UK. I teach on survey design and data collection techniques.

Todd Hartman

Todd Hartman

Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Social Science; Director of the Sheffield Q-Step Centre; Statistical Ambassador for the Royal Statistical Society. Research interests in political psychology.

Andrew Bell

Andrew Bell

Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Social Sciences at Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield. Find out more at or tweet @andrewjdbell

Who developed the course?

The University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield is one of the world’s top 100 universities with a reputation for teaching and research excellence.


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