Understanding Quality of Statistics in News Stories: A Theoretical Approach from the Audience's Perspective

Understanding Quality of Statistics in News Stories: A Theoretical Approach from the Audience's Perspective

Alessandro Martinisi (University of Leeds, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch024
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The quality of statistical information is a critical aspect underlying the success, or the failure, in fulfilling the objectives both of official statistics and of journalistic inquiry. According to the available literature, the quality of statistics is generally assessed by, and based on, five dimensions: Relevance, Accuracy, Timeliness, Accessibility and Coherence. Such assessment puts the users'/readers' viewpoints in the forefront, particularly when they dealing with statistical information as disseminated in news stories. This chapter is a theoretical approach to the issues involved in the audience's and user's views on the quality of statistical information. This chapter tries first to contextualise and problematise the notion of “quality”, both in statistical information and in journalism practice. It concludes with general remarks about the need for an efficient approach and new methods of examining how quality of statistics is understood in news stories.
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In the current information marketplace, economy producers of goods and services are interested in delivering products of the highest possible quality in relation to affordable production costs and underprivileged conditions.

Statistics providers, either from governments or from private organizations, follow a similar criterion, specifically because the quality of statistical information is crucial for success in fulfilling the main goal of statistics: providing the user with high-quality information both on the economy and on society. More specifically, it is a kind of information that is vital not only for decision-making processes and for research and educational purposes but also for enabling the public, the civil society, to judge and evaluate the efficiency and transparency of social and economic programs.

In this regard, the Code of Practice for Official Statistics in the United Kingdom specifies that:

statistics must be as accurate and reliable as they reasonably can be, and free from political interference (2009, p. 5).

Therefore, statistical information releases and news articles share the same goal, that of casting an independent but insightful eye over the shifting socio-political landscape. Indeed, the quality of information they provide is the keystone on which the accomplishment of the journalistic inquiry is based: to continue serving the public interest and to provide social justice. Newsrooms and National Statistical Institutes worldwide are committed to the constant improvement of the quality of information they disseminate via the Internet and through media outlets. We may observe a growing awareness of the urgent need to embrace a systematic approach to quality issues, which aims not only at the improvement of product quality, such as the news product (Meyer, 2009) but also of the whole process of creating and disseminating information.

Defining the notion of quality has been a considerable effort, one which the community of statisticians have been engaged in at least since the beginning of the 1990s (see the report Statistics: A Matter of Trust released by the New Labour Government, 1997-2001) and journalists are still engaged in ongoing debates about what quality journalism means for them, as very recently demonstrated by the report Defining and Measuring Quality Journalism released by Rutgers University (Lacy and Rosenstiel, 2015).

Generally speaking, the interest in quality issues has rapidly increased over the last ten years, and the reasons for this can be briefly summarized in the following three points (Walczak, 2004):

  • 1.

    Exponential growth in the number of real and potential users of information, both on a local and international level. This is partially due to the globalization progress which fosters access to, and collection of, information, thanks to IT technologies;

  • 2.

    Improvements in education, and as a result of that, citizens that, as individuals, are better prepared to use statistical information related to society and international affairs;

  • 3.

    A deeper and pervasive democratization process in economic and social life resulting in awareness promoted within wide social spheres. The number of people who demand a broad and free access to a varied range of information is constantly increasing. This is a vital aspect and has importance to the audience/user from an information quality point of view.


Preliminary Considerations Of Information Quality

In order to address the question of how statistics are understood in news stories, first we need to review the meanings of information quality in the context of this chapter.

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