Stats in investigative journalism: A Q&A with Becky Dale

We spoke to data journalist Becky Dale, who was part of the winning BBC team that produced the winning stats journalism entry in our Investigative journalism category, Afghanistan war: Tracking the killings in August 2019. After offering our hearty congratulations, we asked her about her approach to journalism.

How do statistics help you tell a good story?  
Numbers are often used in storytelling to highlight a specific point or to illustrate a concept. They can add drama to the narrative or they can make an abstract idea more concrete and relatable. In some cases, statistics themselves can be the story, as we have seen repeatedly throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

What do you think is the most important thing to bear in mind when reporting on statistics?   
As a journalist, I think that understanding context is often equally, if not more, important than the numbers themselves. We should be questioning statistics – their sources, how they were gathered or the method of their calculation, what they represent and what they may be omitting – before accepting a number at face value. With that information, journalists can then present statistics in language or visuals that are easily comprehensible. 

What can statisticians do to help journalists in putting numbers into context for their readers?   
Use language that anybody can understand. I have often perceived the field of statistics as impenetrable because of the specificity of calculations and because of its technical language. Often the biggest question I have when reporting is, 'But is this number meaningful?'. Statisticians can help me pick through the significance of the numbers, which I can then translate for my audience or even use directly in a story. I also find it helpful when statisticians advise me on better aspects of the data to channel my focus or alert me when the data I’m working with is not sound. At a basic level, it is useful to learn what I can and cannot say with the numbers I have. 

Has the Covid-19 pandemic made readers more stats-savvy?   
Pandemic statistics have become a regular feature of people’s daily lives, whether about the spread of the virus itself or about the impacts on normal life events like holidays and weddings. I would say that the audience has become more stats-curious, with many people more engaged with reported statistics, and this has in turn forced journalists to become more stats-savvy. Terms like 'seven-day average', 'exponential increase' and 'excess deaths' are now used frequently in reporting. Even data-shy reporters now must articulate numbers and statistical terms in proper context, and as a result, I think the audience is growing alongside us.  

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?  
As a data journalist, I almost always have more data than I can, or should, use in a story. While I do not establish a set limit for numbers, I do go through a process of prioritising which aspects of the data are the most important to telling the story. In other words, I treat statistics the same way I treat facts. By narrowing to the key data points, I can be sure that I am not littering copy unnecessarily with numbers. Data and narrative should both drive the story forward. 

How important do you think statistics are in challenging policy decisions?  
It’s hard to argue against numbers. As a society, we rely on policy decisions that are supported by clear evidence or properly modelled projections. If policies have surprising or negative impacts, it is equally important that we are able to use statistics to challenge the original decisions.  

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 am interested in the near-term impacts of Brexit and climate change on the food supply chain in the UK.  

It will be interesting to see if these two profound changes will have a significant impact on the food we eat, in terms of higher or lower prices and if they will change our food habits over time.  


Read more about our 2020 Statistical Excellence in Journalism Awards in our announcement

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