• The University of Sheffield

Making Sense of Data in the Media

Become a critical consumer of social statistics. Learn what numbers reveal, when and why they mislead, and how to spot fake news.

Making Sense of Data in the Media
  • Duration3 weeks
  • Weekly study3 hours

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 seconds Think of a number.

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds Think 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 seconds It 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 seconds Increasingly, we are bombarded with all sorts of data

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds about 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 seconds We’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.

What topics will you cover?

  • Recognising the ‘size’ of numbers that are reported in the media.
  • How change and risk are reported.
  • How social statistics are created, paying particular attention to survey data.
  • What we can learn from census categories.
  • The different ways that surveys can be conducted and the impact that different formats can have on the results.
  • How to draw a representative sample from a population.
  • Sources of measurement error in surveys.
  • Measuring sensitive or difficult subjects.
  • Checking whether data is trustworthy by reviewing the methodology.
  • How to calculate the Margin of Sampling Error (MoSE).
  • The difference between correlation and causation.
  • Where to find existing sources of data.
  • How to develop a quantitative research project.

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?

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

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.

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.

Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Social Sciences at Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield. Find out more at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/smi/about-us/andrewbell 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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