In last year's RSS Statistical Excellence in Journalism awards, the Johnston Press investigations team was Highly Commended in the Investigative Journalism category. The team's entry was a collection of articles centred around a 'Drive for Justice' campaign which ran in several different regional newspapers as well as in national newspaper the i and which highlighted sentencing figures for those convicted of death by dangerous driving.
The team was praised by the RSS judges for clearly presenting statistical analyses of sentencing figures alongside emotive case studies. Aasma Day, who leads the Johnston Press investigations team, talks about how the team sourced and presented its data, and how its reporting helped raise awareness of an issue that eventually saw a change in the law.
Was it easy to find the data you needed, or was it difficult to get hold of?
For the Drive For Justice campaign, we used a combination of looking for and analysing figures that were already in the public domain and requesting a breakdown of figures from the Ministry of Justice through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. While some figures were easy to obtain, others required more delving and number crunching of data. Some of our initial FOI requests were refused on time grounds so we had to re-word and re-submit them so we could get hold of the facts and figures we wanted for this series.
A lot of figures are presented in the articles - how did you go about presenting them, ie which ones did you decide to pull out as infographics, etc?
With a lot of statistical information to present, we wanted to ensure we presented this in an interesting and engaging way rather than risk losing the figures in large blocks of text. We pulled out some of the more gripping and interesting figures and our graphics and design team worked on infographics and maps as different ways to present this information.
It was important to us that the information was presented in a visual and easy-to-understand way for our readers and human interest stories and statistics were combined in a powerful way to get the message of the campaign across.
Are you pleased with how the Drive for Justice campaign went? What do you think was its biggest achievement?
Drive For Justice was the first project launched by the Johnston Press Investigations Team so it was a huge honour for us to see the Drive For Justice campaign shortlisted for awards. But the biggest achievement of our campaign was hearing the change in law which will mean drivers who kill on the roads will face life sentences and knowing we helped play a part in this by submitting our coverage as part of the Government consultation.
The most heartening thing for the team was to have given the many bereaved families affected by this issue a voice and we are happy we were able to use important statistics in a powerful way to raise awareness of something that is so important to our readers and communities.
Do you think stats are well-presented in the media in general at the moment or is there room for improvement?
I think statistics are widely used in the media but there is definitely room for improvement in the way they are used. Some stories are very data heavy and presenting statistical data in visual and engaging ways makes it easier for readers to take in important information and key facts at a glance.
Some stories also rely on just figures but I feel it is important to tell the whole story by giving the human angle and the impact on people. Combining human interest and statistics works very effectively and presenting stats in visual and interactive ways makes them more relevant and understandable to readers.
Journalists should not be afraid to use statistics to question, analyse and investigate the issues that affect society.
What advice would you give to people entering this year's awards?
Don't be afraid to enter or believe that these awards are only open to data journalists or those who specialise in statistics and numbers. We entered these awards but did not have high hopes as we knew we would be up against data units and those who are highly skilled in finding and analysing statistics.
However, statistics are an everyday part of all our lives and all journalists will be using data in stories on a daily basis without even realising it. These awards recognise excellence in the way journalists use statistics and look for integrity and the avoidance of distortion.
Is there anything statisticians or RSS fellows could do to help journalists effectively use stats in their reporting?
There are a lot of statistics and data sources that are already out there but often it is hidden away or presented in a difficult to understand or confusing manner. This often leads to different journalists making numerous requests for the same information or spending huge amounts of time trying to translate data to be able to present the information in a way that can be understood and absorbed by readers.
It would be hugely helpful if statisticians or RSS fellows could offer advice and tips on the best places to get hold of statistics which are readily available and help with any tools that will make them easier to break down and make relevant to readers.
Advice on better ways to present statistics to enhance reporting would also be appreciated.
Read the Highly Commended Johnson Press investigations team entry (PDF) and find out more about past winners of our Journalism awards. You can enter the 2018 awards yourself - but please note that the deadline for entries is midnight of 16 March 2018.
Aasma Day is pictured above with fellow Johnston Press investigations team member Cahal Milmo, who is chief reporter at the i newspaper, receiving their Highly Commended certificate at the RSS 2017 awards ceremony.