IPSO Blog: Using statistics and reporting on COVID-19

Communications & Public Affairs Officer Hanno Fenech on how statistics in press coverage are regulated under the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Statistics have rapidly become the currency of public debate on the Coronavirus crisis. Using statistics effectively is becoming increasingly important as press coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic continues.

It is crucial that journalists and editors understand the significance and impact of data to present information in a relevant way for newsreaders. As with all editorial content in IPSO-regulated publications, statistics are held to the same standards of accuracy and journalistic accountability under the Editors’ Code of Practice.

While recognising the increased pressure on newsrooms working remotely and journalists trying to make sense of rapidly developing science and epidemiological theories, Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code nevertheless requires the press take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

To uphold the highest standards of accuracy in the use of statistics, some helpful questions for journalists to ask themselves might include:

  • How was this data collected?
  • What was the methodology used?
  • Is the sample representative?
  • Is there a margin of error?
  • If this statistic is newsworthy because of its departure from previously given statistics, is it possible it is merely a statistical outlier?

Many statistics that journalists use, particularly recently when reporting on Covid-19, come from scientific research. While journalists are not responsible for the accuracy of the research itself, they must make sure that they accurately report what a study says or found and make sure they clearly attribute it to the source.

Though the Code sets a high bar to ensure accuracy, it is not an unreachable one. Given that science is evolving rapidly, and new breakthroughs offer greater understanding of previously accepted concepts, statistics reported in the press may eventually prove incomplete as scientific knowledge advances.

The Code recognises the possibility of evolving thought and emphasises the public interest in reporting on the latest scientific developments. Although journalists can take care at the time, as the picture evolves and changes, there may be an obligation to correct if necessary. Clause 1(ii) of the Code makes clear that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee has ruled on a number of cases in which the accuracy of reported statistics were in question. Read some recent rulings here:

Baker v The Daily Telegraph

Ofqual v Sunday Times