Math Tools for Journalists: Part Three



The last four chapters of “Math Tools for Journalists” teaches young journalists about directional, area and volume measurements, as well as the metric system. Both are important for journalists to understand for a number of reasons.

Chapter 9: Directional Measurements

Knowing how to calculate distance, time and rate is an important skill for young journalists. This skill can be helpful when reporting on car or plane crashes where the distance, time and rate may be important to the To find the distance, multiply the rate and the time. For the rate, divide distance by time and for time divide distance by rate.

Similarly, speed is equal to distance divided by time. Always remember though that speed and velocity are two different things and cannot be used interchangeably. Speed measures how fast something is going and velocity measures speed and direction. Acceleration is equal to the ending velocity minus the starting velocity, which is then divided by time.

Try it Out:


Q: You are a reporter in Boston covering the Boston Marathon and doing a profile on one specific runner. You are including in your story how the runner’s marathon time has improved over the years. This years, the runner ran the marathon, 26.2 miles, at an average rate of 5.7 miles per hour. How long did she take to finish the marathon?

A: 4.6 hours

26.2 miles/5.7 miles per hour = 4.6 hours

Chapter 10: Area Measurements

Understanding area measurements such as perimeter and area is necessary for reporting on construction and physical spaces. To calculate perimeter of a four sided area, add together two times the width and two times the length. For other shapes, add together the length of all the sides. To find the area of a square or rectangle, multiply the length and width. For a triangle, multiply the base and height and divide that by two.  

Smaller spaces are measured in square inches or square feet. Larger areas are measured in square feet, square yards or square rods. One square foot equals 144 square. One square yard equals nine square feet. Finally, one square rod equals 30 square yards.

For circular spaces, you must know how to calculate circumferance and area. To find circumference, multiple pi times two and then multiply that product by the radius. For area, multiply pi by the squared radius.

Try it Out:


Q: You are covering the construction of the School of Communications and need to find out the square footage of the entire new building. You know the length of Schar is 160 feet and the width is 60 feet. You also know the length of McEwen is 180 feet and the width is 60 feet. What is the area of the whole building?

A: 20,400 sq feet

(160×60)+(180×60)=20,400 sq feet

Chapter 11: Volume Measurements

Understanding volume measurements is important for any journalist. This can come into play when discussing a new product, writing a recipe or in business reporting.

The most important part about understanding liquid measurements is knowing basic conversions:

  • 2 tablespoons = 1 fluid ounce
  • 1/2 pint = 8 ounces, one cup
  • 1 pint = 16 ounces, two cups
  • 2 pints = 1 quart
  • 2 quarts = half gallon
  • 4 quarts = gallon
  • 1 U.S. standard barrel = 31.5 gallons
  • 1 U.S. gallon = 4/5 Imperial gallon

For solid objects, a reporter can find the area by multiplying the length, height and width. Volume formulas also vary based on the shape. Remember area is measured in cubic ____ based on the unit. 

A ton is a common measurement for things with a large volume. There are different types of tons: short ton (2,000 pounds), long ton (2,240 pounds) and metric ton (2,204.62 pounds).

Try it Out:


Q: What is the volume of a cargo train that is 30 feet long, 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide? 

A: 9,000 cubic feet

30 x 20 x 15 = 9,000

Chapter 12: The Metric System

Understanding the metric system is arguably the most important math skill a journalist must have. Considering almost every other country in the world uses the metric system, it is important for journalists to understand it so they can convert measurements when reporting internationally.

The metric system is rather system: it is based on multiples of 10. It is important for journalists to know  the prefixes, such as milli, micro, mega, giga, etc. The three units of the metric system are meter (length), gram (mass) and liter (volume).

The metric system also uses a different formula for temperature. To convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32 from the Fahrenheit temperature and multiply it by .56. To convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, multiply 1.8 by the Celsius temperature and add 32.

There are many style and usage rules to be followed when using the metric system. For example, all units must start with a lowercase letter except at the beginning of a sentence and Celsius. The symbols should also be written in lowercase letters, except for liters and units named after a country or person. Symbols for units are never plurals. Also remember to use a space between a number and its symbol.

A reporter also does not use a period at the end of unit names. The dot or period is used as the decimal point within numbers. If a measurement is less than one, zero needs to be written before the decimal point.

Try it Out:


Q: You are a food reporter writing a recipe for scones. To make the scones, you must preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. What is that in Celsius?

A: 220 degrees

.56 x (425-32) = 220