Making the headlines add up: the Awards for Statistical Excellence in Journalism

Written by Jenny Freeman on . Posted in Features

Jenny Freeman, honorary officer for the Royal Statistical Society’s external relations work, explains the rationale behind the Society’s hugely successful Statistical Excellence in Journalism awards, and why the committee are looking for more volunteers to continue its success and popularity with journalists.

It’s hard to believe, but the Royal Statistical Society Excellence in Journalism awards have now been running for seven years. The RSS established the awards in 2007 to encourage journalists to use statistics to investigate complex issues and were set up by the Society's then director for external affairs, Sheila Bird, and the Society's press and public affairs manager, Andrew Garratt.

Back then, there were no separate categories, but in 2008 the awards began to recognise entries from print/online sources separately from those which were broadcast. Then, in 2011, the Print/Online category was split into two to reflect the increased growth and capabilities of online journalism.

Previous winners have included Bad Science author and Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, Chris Giles at the Financial Times, Matthew Parris at The Times, Simon Rogers (formerly editor of the Guardian’s Datablog, pictured left) and Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.

Over the years, interest in the awards has grown and last year's competition attracted its second highest number of entries from across a range of publications and media. It really opened my eyes to the efforts being made by journalists to ensure that they are reporting statistics appropriately.

The judges look for entries that communicate numbers in an accessible way and show how statistics can be used to challenge public opinion and/or the decisions and policies of those in power. They also look for integrity when presenting and using statistics - avoiding distortion, highlighting the extent of uncertainties and exposing when important information is missing.

Whilst there were many excellent entries last year, the winners were well-deserved. In the Broadcast category, Radio 4's 'More or Less' show won for its piece on the impact of different sampling intervals on waiting time estimates for arrivals at UK borders during the Olympics. The judges felt the piece highlighted how choice of data can have a big impact on the story that is told.

Meanwhile, Kathryn Torney of The Detail was awarded first prize in the Online category for her piece on segregation in Northern Ireland's schools. The judges were impressed by its use of Google Maps and felt it enabled the reader to get beyond a conventionally presented story to find out relevant local data.

The Print category was won by Daniel Finkelstein at The Times for his column 'The Fink Tank', which the judges felt was an excellent and accessible example of statistical modelling used as a vehicle to explain broadly applicable statistical concepts in an entertaining manner.

It has been a real privilege to have been part of these awards and I'm keen that as many fellows as possible have the opportunity to get involved in the future. If there are any fellows out there who are interested in judging the awards this year, please visit our Latest Callouts to Members page, which gives details of how fellows can get involved with the judging of these awards.

Meanwhile, if you would like to make a nomination, please visit the RSS Excellence in Journalism Awards page on our main website for details and the entry form.

(Pictured: Simon Rogers of the Guardian's Datablog, receiving his award in the Online category, from RSS President Valerie Isham in the 2012 awards ceremony.)

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