When a prominent UK politician announced on live TV that the Government had hit its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April, on the very last day of that month no less, journalists faced a challenge.
Two hours earlier, specialist publication Health Service Journal had revealed that the figures had been fudged: instead of counting the numbers of tests that had been conducted on samples, a source informed them, the Government had quietly changed its own metric so that a test that had been sent out in the post — and not returned or tested — could now be added to the figures.
40,000 tests were then sent out in one day.
By any reasonable understanding, a test sent was not the same thing as a test done, as a raft of jokes — from people saying they had marked their students’ homework by sticking it in the mail, or paid their tax by receiving a letter from the taxman — pointed out.
And yet there was the Government making its claim — at length and without question, on the national broadcaster, and on the websites of national news organisations.
It was 20 minutes before the claim was queried by a reporter, by which time many viewers had switched off.
How journalists responded to this announcement — in different ways, at different times, and in different places — provides a valuable case study for anyone dealing with numbers and the claims that politicans make about them. Continue reading