A new report on how the BBC presents statistics in its news and current affairs programmes has been published by the public service broadcaster’s governing body, the BBC Trust. The review was led by the former National Statistician Dame Jil Matheson.
Making Sense of Statistics aimed to examine the way in which the BBC handles statistics and see if there was room for improvement. And while the report finds many examples of people and programmes at the BBC 'setting the highest standards’ (and citing research showing that the BBC remains the most trusted source of news in the UK), it also found instances where reporting ‘falls short of what audiences have a right to expect.’
The review identifies a ‘lack of confidence among some journalists in the handling of statistics’ and ‘a perceived reluctance sometimes to provide fuller interpretation of statistics for audiences’. The report also expresses concern that BBC Editorial Guidelines do not include specific guidance on the reporting of statistics, something that the RSS flagged up in its response (see point 6) to the review (PDF).
The RSS, which currently offers online statistical courses aimed at journalists, welcomes the review’s recommendation that the BBC boost its in-house statistical expertise. ‘The BBC needs to have the internal capacity to question press releases, relate them to other data sources and, if necessary, do some additional calculations’, the review says, adding that ‘it should develop plans for how to build such capability.’ This concurs with the RSS’s call for the BBC to develop a comprehensive, consistent in-house training programme available to all BBC journalists.
RSS president Peter Diggle said: ‘We recognise that the BBC is already doing good work in data journalism, but welcome this report’s recommendation that more could be done. We are especially keen on the recommendation journalists need to develop more confidence in challenging conventional wisdom and misleading claims, so we are encouraged that in their response the BBC commits to a number of initiatives to improve their handling of statistics, including the better use of guidelines.’