Why is data so important in journalism?
by Parakum Jayasinghe
October 21, 2016

One of Mark Twain’s cliche but brainy quote is “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Many who quote this to ridicule statistics ignore the fact that Twain attributed the saying to the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and it relates to the political context of the time. Is it right to quote it today?

October 20th is World Statistics Day, high time we discuss the importance of statistics, data and evidence.

Addressing a seminar held in Colombo on October 20th of 2016 on Promoting Data-driven Journalism, Director-General of Department of Census and Statistics, Dr. A. J. Satharasinghe said: “The role of the media is vital in increasing public awareness on statistic-literacy. In any country, only a few people approach the authorities for statistical information. Therefore, the media play an essential role in providing the public with accurate data and statistics. Not only that, the media institutes must have the capacity of correctly interpreting the statistics.”

But, are the media interpreting statistics always with progressive aims? The heading of this story published in a popular Sinhala newspaper is a very good example to discuss this problem. The title can be translated as ‘Seventy AIDS patients identified within three months’. But the data in the body of the story is about diagnosing 70 HIV positive individuals in the first quarter of 2016. Every HIV positive individual does not suffer from AIDS condition. On the other hand, it is not a sharp increase in the spread of HIV as it is flagged by the title. The number of HIV positives individuals who were diagnosed in the quarter immediately preceding was 68.

Speaking on interpretation of statistics, Mr. Nimal Bopage, the secretary of the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media pointed out, “Although statistics are prepared highly professionally by independent authorities like Department of Census and Statistics, they must be used wisely for them to be useful. Media are not equally independent and we observe numerous media interpret statistics in various ways. People embrace the opinions built by media based on the interpretation of data. That is why media must be disciplined and responsible in terms of data.”

Statistics are very important in our day to day life. For example, we all are worried when the prices of commodities go up. But was it same the in the same month of the previous year too? Inflation data will give you the expected answer.

Statistics are essential in decision making. Speaking at the event, the State Minister for National Policies and Economic Affairs, Hon. Niroshan Perera, said: “Statistics are useful to identify changes that occur with time. They are useful to obtain economic, social, and cultural information. For the government, in order to make the right decisions and to have effective programmes and projects, we require the support of all stakeholders to ensure accurate data and credible statistics are provided.”

At the event, Representative of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, Mr. Alain Sibenaler said; “At UNFPA, data is at the heart of our mandate. We believe in evidence-based decision making; we believe in evidence-based policy making; and my dear friends from the media, we believe in evidence-based reporting. Why? Because quality data is at the root of informed decisions in societies, companies, institutions, and governments. And as media professionals, you play a fundamental role in ensuring that people can make informed decisions through accurate, credible, and evidence-based reporting.”

(Cover photo: UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka, Mr. Alain Sibenaler, presents first copy of the State of World Population 2016 to Hon. Niroshan Perera, Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs)

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Parakum Jayasinghe
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