Regional stats for regional stories: A Q&A with Gill Dummigan

Gill Dummigan's piece for BBC North West Tonight, ‘Lanscare’, won this year's Regional journalism category of the RSS Statistical Excellence in Journalism Awards.

We caught up with Gill to ask about her approach in using statistics in her work.

How do statistics help you tell a good story?   
A story is only as good as the evidence which backs it up.  I’m fortunate in that there is a vast amount of data provided by the NHS on a regular basis. If you know how to find and extract the relevant parts of that, it can provide solid backing for many stories.

What do you think is the most important thing to bear in mind when reporting on statistics?   
The key thing is to make statistics simple and relevant. The audience only cares about figures if you can show them why they matter and who it affects. 

What can statisticians do to help journalists in putting numbers into context for their readers?   
Comparisons help. For me, it’s about how the north west of England compares with other parts of the country.  The other element is the real world context – what are the numbers really showing? The statistics I used for my report showed that certain acute hospital trusts had large numbers of patients waiting more than 12 hours to be admitted. The assumption was that those people were waiting to be treated for physical ailments. But the truth was that they were mental health patients who needed to be seen by a completely different trust. 

Has the Covid-19 pandemic made readers more stats-savvy?   
The Covid pandemic has transformed the way the audience regards statistics. There is far more interest in numbers than there has ever been. But it’s also become increasingly important to be accurate in what those statistics show. So, for example, a rise in the rate of people testing positive may well mean that the infection rate has gone up, but there can also be other factors – like the number of tests being carried out. As ever, context is everything. 

How do you decide which numbers to use and which to leave out – do you have a limit to the  amount  of stats you use in any given story?  
If you’re trying to give a general impression of a situation then it could be seven or eight statistics.  If you want the audience to focus on one issue or area then three or four is probably the limit. 

What are the challenges you face when trying to obtain data on your local area? 
A lot of statistics are given on a national basis. But actually the NHS is unusual in that there is a great deal of freely available data at a very local level – often down to individual trusts. 

The Economic and Social Research Council funds research on the social and economic questions facing us today.  If you could choose a question to research, what would it be?    
I’d like to know the exact reasons why Covid struck parts of the north so much harder in this second wave than the rest of the country, in particular what happened in early September when the schools went back. Why, for example, did Knowsley go from a relatively low rate at the end of August to the highest rate in the country within a fortnight? 


Read more about the winners of the 2020 Statistical Excellence in Journalism Awards in our announcement.

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