Reporting of statistics commendable but BBC must further boost efforts, review finds

The BBC has a special responsibility to help audiences make sense of what all these numbers mean. This report shows that overall the BBC is fulfilling that task, but that it is still falling short in some critical areas.Richard Ayre, Chair of BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee
Date: 10.08.2016     Last updated: 12.08.2016 at 11.23

BBC News has a strong record in its reporting of statistics, but needs to boost its efforts to help audiences better understand the facts and figures they see and hear every day, an independent report commissioned by the BBC Trust has concluded.  

The report, conducted by an expert panel led by the former UK National Statistician Jil Matheson, concludes that overall the BBC should be commended for its approach to reporting statistics, with a strong record in selecting and presenting statistics effectively.  However, it needs to go further in developing the confidence and capacity to challenge conventional wisdom and misleading claims, and to help audiences understand the weight of evidence on statistical claims.  

The report proposes a number of areas where the BBC could do much more to help audiences understand and interpret statistics, particularly as levels of ‘statistical literacy’ in the UK are relatively low. 

The in-depth review was supported by independent focus group audience research across the UK, and detailed independent content analysis.  Dame Jil and the panel looked at a number of key stories on health, the economy, migration and welfare, including ongoing coverage of the number of migrants arriving in the UK; a World Health Organisation report about cancer risks associated with eating processed meat; the junior doctors' dispute in England; and the 2015 Government Spending Review. 

The panel made the following recommendations:

  • The BBC should do much more to contextualise statistics so that audiences understand their significance, particularly when it comes to ‘big numbers’.  
  • The BBC should be better and braver in interpreting statistics for the audience to help them make sense of them.  The review found that audiences were “frustrated” with a tendency to simply present different sets of statistics from either side of an argument. 
  • The BBC should do more to go beyond the headlines and investigate figures underlying sources.  The Panel warned of the dangers of reporting statistics "straight from a press release.” 
  • More should be done to ensure that all BBC presenters are able to confidently challenge misleading/inaccurate statistical claims made by interviewees. 
  • The BBC should take a more consistent approach to presenting risk, such as in reporting of health-related statistics, although the report considers that the BBC generally performs better than other broadcasters. 
  • The BBC must be clear about significance in reporting statistics – there is a tendency to focus on change, but it is important to explain when a change is not in fact significant, such as in unemployment, GDP or inflation statistics. 
  • More can be done to increase the BBC’s statistical capacity, including how to better identify, use and develop in-house expertise and to ensure non-specialist journalists have access to statistical expertise. 
  • The BBC needs to develop and standardise its guidance for staff on reporting statistics, to ensure that it is applying standards consistently.  

In their response to the report, also published today, BBC News has welcomed the findings and set out its plans to develop data journalism as a cornerstone of its reporting in future.  In addition, BBC Reality Check will be made a permanent feature on BBC News; new training in the use of statistics will be introduced for BBC News staff; new guidance on using statistics will be introduced; and references to explaining statistics and risk in the BBC’s editorial guidelines will be reviewed.

The BBC has also committed to reviewing every six months the progress of programmes and presenters in holding people in public office to account when reporting on statistics, to ensure that statistical claims are challenged and that journalists are interpreting statistical data for audiences to help them understand.  The first six months will focus on the Today programme, BBC Breakfast and 5live Drive. 

In its conclusions published alongside the report today, the BBC Trust has welcomed the review’s finding that the BBC has great strengths in helping audiences to understand the statistics they are faced with every day, although Trustees share the panel’s belief that the BBC needs to do consistently better in some areas.  Trustees have welcomed the action plan set out by the BBC and will require the BBC to report back on progress at the end of 2016. 

BBC Trustee Richard Ayre said:

“As the world changes faster than ever and we become an increasingly data-driven society, the BBC has a special responsibility to help audiences make sense of what all these numbers mean.  This report shows that overall the BBC is fulfilling that task, but that it is still falling short in some critical areas.  Getting it right will be ever more important for the next BBC Charter period, and I thank Dame Jil and her team for their excellent and unflinching report which will help the BBC to do that.”

Dame Jil Matheson said:

“Overall I have been impressed by the BBC’s commitment to helping audiences understand the world we live in, and helping them navigate through complex data and statistics.  The public trusts the BBC to do it well, and we found that they often do a very good job – but it is frustrating that they don’t do this consistently.  To make that happen, BBC journalists need the confidence and skills to go beyond headlines, and to challenge misleading claims.”

Notes to Editors

  • Since its inception the Trust has regularly carried out impartiality reviews examining a range of areas of BBC output.  Previous reviews have looked at the BBC’s coverage of business, of network news coverage of the UK nations, of science, of the events known as the Arab Spring, of rural areas of the UK, and of the breadth of opinion reflected in the BBC’s output.   
  • Dame Jil Matheson was appointed UK National Statistician, Head of the Government Statistical Service and Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority in 2009.  She retired in September 2014.  From 2012 until her retirement, Jil was Chair of the OECD’s Committee on Statistics and Statistical Policy, and in 2014 was elected Chair of the UN Statistical Commission. 
  • Paul Johnson is Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and a previous deputy head of the Government Economic Service.  Sir Peter Stothard was Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 2002 to spring 2016 and was previously Editor of the Times.  Sir David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. 
  • The Trust commissioned content analysis from the Cardiff School of Journalism Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University as part of the review.  Focus group audience research was also commissioned from Oxygen Brand Consulting.