The RSS has just launched its Statistical Excellence in Journalism awards for 2018, which seeks to celebrate well-presented statistics in the media and reward those who use statistics well in their work to uncover insights on key public issues. Here we speak to the winner of last year’s Investigative Journalism category, Mail on Sunday home affairs editor Martin Beckford (pictured receiving his award), whose article focused on the number of police on duty at night in the UK.
Martin's article was described by the judges as 'an informative piece of journalism that examines an issue which is of huge relevance at the moment'. Using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, he was able to access police staffing levels at night and, comparing these to ONS population figures, was able to present the huge number of people per officer at the time when most crimes take place.
Some of the figures presented via infographics in your winning report were obtained as FOI requests. Was it easy enough to find the data you needed, or was it all very difficult to find?
Most of the figures for my story came from FOI requests. Police forces had never before made public this level of information about officer numbers at night, so I had to phrase my requests very carefully to make sure they weren’t rejected. With 43 different forces, there is always a risk you will get 43 types of response that won’t be comparable.
A lot of figures are presented in the article - how did you go about presenting them?
Once I got the raw data from police forces, I had to combine it with ONS population figures to work out the ratio of officers on duty to residents in each area. We focused on the top 20 forces for space reasons. To show why the findings were important, I found separate ONS figures showing how many crimes occur at night.
Do you think stats are well-presented in the media at the moment or is there room for improvement?
The presentation of statistics in the media has improved a lot, with many organisations now employing dedicated data journalists, and the proliferation of fact-checking services. It would help if public sector bodies produced data in easy-to-use and standardised documents, rather than PDFs of photocopies, as sometimes still happens.
What advice would you give to people considering entering this year’s awards?
My advice to entrants would be to prepare an acceptance speech! I don’t think any of us were expecting to have to say something at last year’s awards ceremony.
Is there anything statisticians or RSS fellows could do to help journalists effectively use stats in their reporting?
It would be great if the RSS had a list of statisticians on its website, detailing their areas of expertise, who could be contacted directly to provide advice on stories before publication.