Making Sense of Statistics

Report for the BBC Trust: “The BBC, as the UK’s main public service broadcaster, has a particularly important role to play in bringing statistics to public attention and helping audiences to digest, understand and apply them to their daily lives. Accuracy and impartiality have a specific meaning when applied to statistics. Reporting accurately and impartially on critical and sometimes controversial topics requires understanding the data that informs them and accurate and impartial presentation of that data.

Overall, the BBC is to be commended in its approach to the use of statistics. People at the BBC place great value on using statistics responsibly. Journalists often go to some lengths to verify the statistics they receive. They exercise judgement when deciding which statistics to cover and the BBC has a strong record in selecting and presenting statistics effectively. Journalists and programme makers often make attempts to challenge conventional wisdom and provide independent assessments of stories reported elsewhere. Many areas of the BBC give careful thought to the way in which statistics are presented for audiences and the BBC has prioritised responsiveness to mistakes in recent years.

Informed by the evidence supporting this report, including Cardiff University’s content analysis and Oxygen Brand Consulting’s audience research study, we have nevertheless identified some areas for improvement. These include the following:

Contextualising statistics: Numbers are sometimes used by the BBC in ways which make it difficult for audiences to understand whether they are really big or small, worrying or not. Audiences have difficulty in particular in interpreting “big numbers”. And a number on its own, without trends or comparisons, rarely means much. We recommend that much more is done to ensure that statistics are always contextualised in such a way that audiences can understand their significance.

Interpreting, evaluating and “refereeing’“statistics: …The BBC needs to get better and braver in interpreting and explaining rival statistics and guiding the audience. Going beyond the headlines There is also a need for more regular, deeper investigation of the figures underlying sources such as press releases. This is especially pertinent as the Government is the predominant source of statistics on the BBC. We cannot expect, and do not suggest it is necessary for, all journalists to have access to and a full understanding of every single statistic which is in  the public domain. But there is a need to look beyond the headlines to ask how the figures were obtained and whether they seem sensible. Failure to dig deeper into the data also represents lost opportunities to provide new and broader insights on topical issues. For example, reporting GDP per head of population might give a different perspective of the economy than just GDP alone, and we would like to see such analyses covered by the BBC more often. Geographic breakdowns could enhance reporting on the devolved UK.

We recommend that “Reality Check” becomes a permanent feature of the BBC’s activities, with a prominent online presence, reinforcing the BBC’s commitment to providing well-informed, accurate information on topical and important issues.

…The BBC needs to have the internal capacity to question press releases, relate them to other data sources and, if necessary, do some additional calculations – for example translating relative to absolute risk. There remains a need for basic training on, for example, percentages and percentage change, and nominal and real financial numbers….(More)”