Stats journalism: Uncovering stories using stats in a post-truth era

Written by Web News Editor on . Posted in Features

At a time where the term ‘post-truth’ has become so prevalent it was named ‘word of the year’, the ability to present facts and figures in a way that engages with people is becoming a much sought-after skill. Not only that, but the increasing amount of data becoming available means it’s more important than ever before to be able to use that data to say something meaningful about the world around us.

The Royal Statistical Society’s awards for Statistical Excellence in Journalism has been celebrating these skills for a number of years now and its recipients are celebrated for their ability to turn figures into meaningful stories that help shed light on a particular issue, using data to show us something we didn’t know before.

Tom Bateman (pictured left with former RSS vice president Jenny Freeman), a journalist for BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, won last year’s award in the Investigative Journalism category doing just that. His story, 2,000 schools ‘missing’ from exam help data was commended by the RSS for highlighting concerns about the discrepancy in the amount of help that pupils in different schools get in their GCSE and A level examinations. Not only that, his investigations have prompted the exam regulator, OfQual, to make the data that underpinned his story publicly available.

Tom recalls how he first became aware that there might be an issue around some schools accessing more help than others in examinations – and that some schools weren’t accessing any help at all. ‘It was entirely anecdotal, from someone I know personally who’d worked in education who said there were lots of people discussing it,’ he says. 'There was broad concern with the ability of schools with less money to jump through hoops and resource these special measures.’ But while the available data showed how many schools were accessing extra help around exams, there didn’t seem to be any available breakdown showing which types of school were accessing it – whether, for example, it was state or private. When Tom began calling the exam boards to get the relevant figures it became clear the data wasn’t forthcoming. ‘They said the data wasn’t theirs to release,’ he recalls.

So he made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the only exam board which is subject to FOI requests - Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR). While the Information Commissioner concurred that the information in question was not OCR's to give - the move prompted Ofqual to finally release the data in a short report in December 2015. This report showed that two thousand schools had not made any special arrangement requests for its students, and this made the basis for Tom’s investigative report.

The challenges that Tom faced in accessing the data he needed for the story go to the very heart of the issues that surround open data. Confusion around data ownership and who has the right to publish it, and making it accessible are just some of the issues that can prevent people finding the data they need. 'One of the things that can happen as a journalist is to get into conspiracy theory mode,’ says Tom. ‘But usually it is genuinely because the data doesn’t exist or isn’t in the right format.’ However, his story has highlighted a particular data set that should be, and is now, publicly available. 'I don’t see why any of this shouldn’t be completely open data,’ he says. 'What I thought was wrong was that not all exam boards were open to FOI requests. Schools pay vast sums of taxpayers money into the exams system and it seemed wrong that there was no open accountability of this data.'

Tom considers himself fortunate that at the BBC, he has had support and training in dealing with data but feels that there could be more information about how to utilise currently available data. 'Most journalists aren’t very au fait with what sources of information are already out there; how to access them and how to make sense of them,’ he says. 'We have a team at Westminster who know what data is already out there but that is quite a specialist area. Spreading that information would be very valuable.’ 

The 2017 RSS Statistical Excellence in Journalism awards are now open. To find out more information and enter the awards, go to our journalism awards webpage. Follow updates on the awards on Twitter at #RSSAwards2017.

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