Ensuring the veracity of stats at the BBC: an interview with Anthony Reuben

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

Recent years have seen an encouraging amount of attention being paid to statistical accuracy in the media. This is not only because journalists can find meaty stories in catching a politician or organisation out with inaccurate figures. The increased amount of scrutiny in a changing media environment also means journalists themselves are under increasing pressure to get their facts and figures correct.

The BBC has recognised this reality by creating the new post - Head of Statistics - with Anthony Reuben moving into the position after more than a decade as a Business Reporter at the corporation. Anthony visited the RSS shortly after his appointment to discuss how his new role will function inside the BBC.

His path to this new role began when he presented an internal course for BBC journalists entitled: ‘Making Sense of Statistics’. As he describes it: ‘I began writing this course a couple of years ago with Jonathan Baker (then Head of BBC College of Journalism) and we got to the last slide, which was where can you turn for more help? There are plenty of people outside the BBC that could help journalists, but not many inside it. We have More or Less which is a wonderful programme and we have some departments that are good with stats, but there was no one whose job it was to help with statistics specifically.’

It was during his time as a business reporter that Anthony won the RSS Award for Excellence in Online Journalism in 2011, following his work on the spending review. As nominations open for the 2014 awards, how significant was the award for him? ‘It was very important. I said when I picked up the award that I wanted to use it to advance the cause of statistical robustness and it really did help. Personally, it helped with setting up the ‘Making Sense of Statistics’ course and with becoming someone who would be consulted on numbers.’

Jonathan Baker later became Head of Newsgathering and with the experience of the course in his mind, he pitched for funding to create a Head of Statistics within BBC News. Part of the role involves Anthony acting as an internal statistical consultant, so I asked him, at what point does he expect journalists to seek him out. ‘I think it’s mainly about alarm bells, if you see a figure and it just doesn’t look quite right. You can’t be an expert on everything, most of journalism is about knowing what questions to ask and when.’ As an illustration of this he cites in ever growing PR industry. ‘The sheer weight of rubbish we get sent to us from PR firms, I got something in this morning that made great claims and then you look down the bottom and it says “we did interviews with 42 people”.’

He admits that, in the past, the skills needed to be sceptical of a statistic’s solidity are an overlooked one in journalism. ‘I have noticed that those who are just out of journalism school are more number literate. It was quite unusual when I started to have attended journalism college, so I would hope that these sorts of things are being taught better at an earlier level now.’

This greater attention to numbers has coincided with the rise of data journalism, but it is still too early to tell how far this new concept can further the trade. ‘I think as spreadsheets have become more powerful, people have been able to correlate almost anything with almost anything else. And I think people are being fooled by this because there is more of it out there now. Some PR companies have discovered that if they put a great big number somewhere in a press release, people will just accept it.’

While data analysis is a powerful tool for today’s journalist, Anthony acknowledges that this needs to be married to a basic notion of journalistic storytelling. ‘We had a talk a few years ago from someone in a big US investigative organisation, and he had managed to get hold of this million line spreadsheet. It was unbelievably vast, and impressed everybody when he talked about what he had been doing with it. But the stories he had got out of it were frankly no great shakes. In a way it seemed that the point of the exercise for him had been to get this million line spreadsheet and that it was nice that he could get some stories out of it. So I think it’s very important that as we do more data journalism that our work is story led and not method led’

There has been a growth in the amount of courses available to journalists to improve their data and statistics capabilities and Anthony has attended his share of them. ‘I’ve done a fair few of them with terrifically talented journalists talking about what methods they have used to find particular stories. But the trouble is, personally I find it very difficult to remember the methods if I haven’t used it for a particular story myself. So I think the methods that different people favour are based on the particular stories they have been working on. Which brings me back to the idea of being story led rather than method led.’

Aside from his in-house consultant duties, Anthony also aims to do on screen work and analysis for the BBC News website. His first couple of weeks in the job provided a timely lesson in how statistics and evidence are needed to properly frame an issue. This year’s floods grew from a weather event into a political football, almost obscuring the sheer amount of rain that has fallen from the story. ‘I think the trouble with this particular flooding is that there has been a bizarre amount of politics involved. When you get to the stage that members of the government are saying that the mistake they made was listening to the experts too much, then you know you’re in a bad place.’

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