At the end of July this year the BBC ended a quiet experiment that had been going on for the last 18 months: a Head of Statistics role funded initially by the corporation’s innovation fund and then by election coverage money.
Anthony Reuben was the person occupying that role. A business reporter with almost two decades’ experience at the BBC, Reuters, Sky, the Money Channel and the FT, he was helping to design a new statistics course for the BBC College of Journalism when the need for a new role became clear.
“We got to the last slide, which was where to turn for more help. There were plenty of people outside the BBC, but nobody in it who had the time or skills to help with statistical questions. So we applied for a year’s funding from the Innovation Fund.”
What the head of statistics role involved
Once in the role Reuben would sit with the planning team and attend some of the daily news and planning meetings to anticipate big stories which might “set off alarm bells”.
“I would receive several emails a week from people across the corporation who were working on number-based stories and wanted help or advice.
“I wrote a weekly column, conducted training for journalists and tried to get out of the office to meet statisticians.”
Reuben believes there is a great problem with journalists not being skeptical enough about dodgy surveys.
“Within the BBC, journalists are getting better at understanding that a survey of 20 people will not tell you much about anything.
“What is more difficult is that, if a survey is asking 1,000 people, whether those are the right 1,000 people to be representative. It’s not just journalists who struggle with this – the polling companies are finding it pretty difficult at the moment too.
He advises journalists who have to report on announcements or reports involving numbers to “listen to the alarm bells in your head when you hear particular words or phrases.”
“At that point ask for help. If it’s 3am, you’re working towards a breakfast programme and there isn’t anybody to ask, a good first step is to look at the methodology. If it looks transparent and sensible and they seem to have gone to some trouble to get it right then that’s a good sign.
“Try making up a news story in which you explain how the numbers have been reached. If you can say it out loud without sounding silly that is another good sign.”
Many stories that reporters get, he notes, are ‘big number’ stories which appeared to be striking but require the journalist to scrutinise further to establish whether the numbers really were striking when placed in context.
“Finally, think about how you would possibly go about checking the claims being made. That will also help you with whether the language being used is right or if it is too precise for the figures being discussed.”
Why organisations need a statistical specialist they can check stories with
Reuben “obviously” thinks it’s hugely important that organisations have a statistical specialist.
“There are thousands of companies, pressure groups and political parties out there trying to influence the news agenda with numbers. It seems obvious that news organisations should have at least one person helping journalists get the numbers right.”
But, for now, the BBC has lost that capacity. You can still read his posts for the BBC Academy blog here but Reuben is back reporting business news for the BBC News website, where he still finds himself putting those skils into practice.