BBC stats review: an ambitious vision for data journalism

Last week saw the BBC Trust publish an impartiality review about the BBC’s reporting of statistics.  Statistics are a fundamental… component of a thriving democracy: helping us understand our lives as citizens, how things are changing, how public services are performing, and whether interventions by authorities are making a difference.  And so the BBC’s reporting of statistics are a key part of democratic accountability, since our major public Broadcaster has a unique role in explaining statistics to citizens.

An excellent report…

It’s an excellent report, hardly surprising given the involvement of a former National Statistician, a former Editor of the Times, a professor of public understanding of risk (and next President of the Royal Statistical Society), and the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It focuses largely on the BBC’s reporting of others’ statistics, although there are references to the BBC’s commissioning of polls and social experiments.

And it doesn’t bash the BBC, indeed it praises many examples of good work – but it does also highlight where the BBC can do better.

… highlighting where the BBC does well, and can do better

In particular, the report points out how statistics aren’t always contextualised (e.g. through setting them in the context of comparators or long term trends). It urges the BBC to go beyond the headlines, with greater challenge and to do a bit of additional analysis. It found too many examples of the BBC reporting increases/decreases in the level of risk without reporting absolute risk levels; and a tendency to overplay small movements that might not be meaningful or statistically significant.

It paints a picture of the BBC where there are some confident journalists using statistics brilliantly in their work, but where many journalists lack confidence in using statistics and don’t know where to seek support. It identifies action to institutionalise the BBC’s statistics capability, including recommending the reinstatement of the Head of Statistics post in BBC News, developing clear guidance, and continuing with Reality Check.

Making data a “cornerstone” of BBC News coverage…

The BBC’s response accepts all of this. And then it goes much further: “The BBC has a plan to develop data journalism as a cornerstone of its reporting and analysis in all areas of News coverage”.

This is very welcome, although growing a sustainable and institutionally supported data journalism outfit won’t be easy. Many organisations are trying to grow their capability and capacity in data analytics and some of the challenges for the BBC will be resourcing, growing a quantitative unit in a largely literary news culture, getting to know the myriad of sources and developing skills and tools, and of course inculcating news values in the team.  A substantive increase in data journalism will also come with an increase in challenges from a wide range of external players and doubtless rows and complaints.

… a bold aim for an ambitious response

In this context, I would just tease the BBC about its response.  Given the report has in effect said the BBC can do better on the basics, the plan to develop data journalism as a ‘cornerstone’ of reporting in its response is bold.  It’s as if you have been told your long jump would be a bit better if you developed your technique, and you said ‘yeah yeah, but actually, I’m also going to become a brilliant all-round practitioner of the heptathlon’.

Good data journalism looks “beyond the headline”…

But despite the difficulty, it is worth doing. A step change in use of data journalism has the hugely positive potential to change the news agenda for the better. The report mentions an astonishing figure from an earlier review of science in 2011 where Imperial College found that around 80% of its sample of 55 research based stories appeared to emanate from a press release.  What’s more, the current review noted “a tendency to report statistics straight from a press release, without necessarily going “beyond the headline””.

…breaking news, not just reporting it

Good data journalism frees you from this PR tyranny – it allows you to decide what to explore, and to break news, not simply to report it.  It allows a broadcaster to say ‘this is important’, to be issue led, and less reactive. The public can only benefit.

We’re delighted the BBC is committing to these ambitions…

As the House of Commons Librarian, with a crack team of researchers including data analysts and statisticians who produce detailed data driven analyses of topical and fundamental issues, we’re familiar with many of the issues, and I’m delighted that the BBC is committing to entering this space.

… and wish it the very best of luck

I wish it well as it develops from an institution with a small number of brilliant pioneers in this area to institutionalising the capability, sustaining and exploiting it.  If the BBC really does add brilliant data analysis and sourcing to its formidable skills of speed, clarity and storytelling, this will mark a step change for data journalism.

Penny Young is Librarian and Director General, Information Services, House of Commons. Previously she was Chief Executive, NatCen Social Research, which conducts the long running British Social Attitudes survey.

Picture Credit: New Broadcasting House by Alexander Svensson; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)