The narrative and the facts: a Q&A with Mark Easton

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features-OLD

As the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton has become a familiar face on the nation’s television screens. He has worked as a journalist through some of the most turbulent times in his profession, from humble beginnings at his local paper to the top of the BBC. Technology has now put a vast amount of information at the fingertips of every citizen and journalist.
This is both a blessing and a curse, but individuals like Mark have stood out from the crowd, using this abundance of data to complement and balance their reporting. His clear and creative way of presenting statistics in current affairs was recognised when Mark won the RSS Statistical Excellence Award in 2009.

Mark’s reporting has sought to peel back the layers of life in Britain to take a deeper, more detailed look at how the nation functions. His first book, Britain etc., was released this year and accompanies his daily work of viewing the country through the prism of facts and individual stories. He kindly took time out to talk to StatsLife on how studying statistics informs his work and the pitfalls of data saturation in the modern media environment.
 
When was it in your reporting career that you realised the importance of statistics in framing the true nature of a story?
 
I realised far too late in my journalistic career, to be honest, that any attempt to get to the truth as to how things are changing, necessarily requires statistical evidence. Without data, one is left with anecdote, prejudice and propaganda – all of which are likely to be completely wrong.     
How often do you now find that the release of some revealing statistics will be the catalyst for you to look closer at a particular subject or story?
 
Almost every day. The wealth of good quality statistics now available on the Internet combined with relatively simple computer programs to analyse them means I am constantly finding intriguing numbers to crunch. Despite my maths teacher’s despair all those years ago, I now find my day job is often driven by numbers and sums.
 
You have spoken before, notably at our ‘Perils of Perception’ event, about the imbalance between the true measure of an issue and the public’s concept of it. Do you think this is a problem of the media’s statistical awareness or a deeper concern of entrenched public prejudice struggling against facts?
 
Media organisations generally, but newspapers in particular, are keenly aware that they benefit by telling stories that chime with the views and prejudices of their audience and readers. At best this means that data supporting consumer perception will be given greater prominence than data that does the opposite. At worst it can mean that data is manipulated or distorted to fit win with preconceived views. The consequence is that the public can find itself at total odds with reality.
 
How do you think statistics can be made more accessible and appealing to the public? How do you weave raw facts into an intriguing story without sensationalising it?
 
I make an assumption that my audience is genuinely interested in discovering the truth about an issue. They may need some key facts to help them understand the complexities and components and so I try to use data in moderation but make it a central part of the explanation.
 
Lastly, as the PR and spin industry has grown more complex, do you think it is now an increasing uphill battle to keep statistical integrity intact?
 
I was a lot more concerned about statistical integrity a few years ago when I saw even senior politicians abusing official data and pressure groups almost making up the numbers. I think now that the activities of statisticians and organisations like Full Fact, Fact Check and Straight Statistics on social media is changing the game. The abuse of data is more likely to be spotted and highlighted – sometimes within minutes. The existence of the UK Statistics Authority has changed the game in Westminster and, while the opportunity for abusing and undermining confidence in data is greater than ever, there is (I hope) an equal and opposite force to police it all.
 

Mark Easton

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