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


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