Numbers in the news get a fresh pair of eyes

Wednesday 12 February 2014, 09:54

Anthony Reuben Anthony Reuben is head of statistics for BBC News

It’s week two and I’m already in demand. BBC journalists from programmes like Breakfast, PM, Panorama and the News at Ten have been asking me to investigate figures for them, and it’s interesting that most of the figures I’ve been looking at so far have been to do with health.

BBC figures on ambulance delays: NHS stats are always massive I’ve been looking into some somewhat questionable life-expectancy figures which suggested a baby girl born in a particular area could expect to live to 105. I examined the argument in Prime Minister’s Questions last week about whether the government was spending more or less on flood defences. And I’ve been advising BBC Newsgathering on some infant mortality figures. Great to be wanted.

So why does BBC News need a head of statistics? (I’m the first.) Well, it was an idea that formed during the design of the College of Journalism’s Making Sense of Statistics (internal) course that’s rolled out across the organisation. When we got to the final slide which told journalists where to go for more help and advice we couldn’t think of many places inside the BBC. So College head Jonathan Baker and I applied for funding and we were given the money to create this post for a year.

My job is to act as the flag-bearer for statistical robustness across BBC News - there is a great deal to be said for letting journalists know that someone is keeping an eye on what they do with numbers. Part of the role is certainly to help colleagues understand that numbers must be treated like any other piece of information: neither to be believed without question nor used as an excuse to cover an issue regardless of their validity.

The weight of number-based news arriving in journalists’ inboxes can be overwhelming. The impact of a statistic in a story can be huge but before we report it we have to be confident it deserves that impact. Almost any numbers involving the NHS, for example, will be massive and impressive because it’s such an enormous organisation.

One of the key lessons of the College’s statistics course which I hope to be teaching regularly to colleagues across the country is that journalists already have many of the tools they need to challenge figures so long as they overcome their fear of them. And there is a crucial test for any number that you’re faced with: is this reasonably likely to be true? You don’t usually need a degree in maths to answer that question.

As well as advising on numbers in the news my job is to act as a consultant for teams and correspondents working on data stories. And because I work alongside the BBC News planning team I’m hoping that I’ll be able to highlight interesting stats - as well as nip dodgy ones in the bud before they get as far as our audiences.

Early days, I know, but the signs are encouraging. The general feeling, both inside and outside the BBC, seems to be that this area needs more oversight. Bogus numbers might have found a new worst enemy.


Reporting big numbers

Reporting averages, percentages and data

Reporting numbers: Chance and patterns

Investigative journalism skills

Mine the digits in the data to find the scoops someone’s trying to hide

Statistics blogs by Michael Blastland, creator of Radio 4’s More or Less

Data stories need context for hyperlocal audiences

Making Sense of Statistics: College of Journalism training for BBC staff


Be the first to comment

Share this page

More Posts

Investigative apps are useful tools for journalists, if rough around the edges

Monday 10 February 2014, 11:45

Olympics Nazi row threatens top Russian radio station

Thursday 13 February 2014, 11:46

About this Blog

A blog for the College of Journalism at the BBC Academy, discussing current technical, ethical, production and craft issues in journalism.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?

Follow us on Twitter

New twitter image News and comment about journalism and interaction with the College:


Recent posts from this blog


Google Glass by Charles Miller

iOS 7 for journalists by Marc Settle

Responsive web design by Helene Sears

Viral videos by Charles Miller


Use of violent footage by Charles Miller

Reporting transgender issues by Stuart Hughes

Pitfalls of data journalism by Martin Rosenbaum

Is Twitter sexist? by Anna Holligan


What President Putin never says by Stephen Ennis

BBC emboldens Pakistan media by Sajid Iqbal

Twitter in the Arab world by Damian Radcliffe

Media freedom in Turkey by William Horsley


Newsnight enlists social media by Anna Holligan

Coverage of high tech burger by Rebecca Wells

Healthy hyperlocal media by Damian Radcliffe

Media access to Google by Charles Miller

Waiting for the royal baby by Suzanne Lord


Place name pronunciation by Marieke Martin

Researching science topics by Alex Freeman

Americanisms and the BBC by Ian Jolly

Researching Northern Ireland by Tim Shields

Also from the College

Polly Evans on presenting regional news for BBC South East Today

Polly Evans


How the BBC provides impartial coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Alan Green on the job of a football commentator for BBC Radio 5 Live

Alan Green


The BBC College of Journalism and New York Times social media conference in New York

The College of Journalism's New York conference


Other great places to follow debates about journalism and media:

George Brock: thoughts on journalism past, present and future from City University's head of journalism

The Media Blog: lively and often funny topical detail about UK media output

Memex 1.1: John Naughton’s online diary: comment on media output and technology from the journalist and academic

Arab Media & Society: Arab media and trends summarised by the American University in Cairo

British Journalism Review: selected pieces from the authoritative quarterly journal

MediaShift: PBS monitoring of the changing media world from a US perspective

Arts & Letters Daily: more interesting ideas and good writing than you will ever have time to read

FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver of the New York Times writes data-based US politics blog (there are 538 electors in the US electoral college)

Alltop Journalism: links to the most recent posts on many journalism blogs

About the BBC: varied BBC blog about all things BBC-ish

Columbia Journalism Review: US academic perspectives

Facebook + Journalists: Facebook's own guide to its use by journalists

Andy Dickinson: teacher of digital and online journalism at the University of Central Lancashire

Jon Slattery: UK media news from the former deputy editor of Press Gazette

Meeja Law: Judith Townend's guide to media and legal issues 

European Journalism Centre: global news from the Netherlands

Roy Greenslade: Guardian blog by the former Mirror editor now journalism prof

Wannabee Hacks: information and experiences from aspiring journalists.