Statistical Misrepresentation in Journalism

Yesterday George Wright, the Solutions Lead for the Intelligent Systems team at Fairfax Media, took time out of his busy schedule to discuss data journalism with university students in an online forum.


Data journalism reflects the increased role that statistics are playing in online news, but presents a real problem of misrepresentation.

George Wright yesterday warned university journalism students about the dangers of using data in their stories.

The biggest danger in data journalism is misrepresenting the statistics in order to make a story angle more sensational.

Data should not be picked and chosen from to suit a certain story; rather, the story should rise from the data.

Tedious as it may be, journalists need to comb through data to find a story. Photo source.

Tedious as it may be, journalists need to comb through data to find a story. Photo source.

Mr Wright said that journalists should treat data as they would a witness by applying the same scrutiny.

Data should be treated as evidence and not fact – you will still have to verify the source [and] confirm the validity.

He pointed out, in his opinion, that a lack of statistical literacy is a glaring skill gap in modern journalism.

Even if you have the best access to the biggest, juiciest data sources it can still be misrepresented and interpreted as fact.

A journalist’s responsibility is to report news as it happens, and to inform people of breaking events and update them on developing stories.

However, journalists are often ridiculed as blood-sucking story leeches who care more about their careers than for people. Although this may be true of some – and it is these few who are ruining the media’s name – most journalists are honest people who care about their sources and about getting the facts right, and who operate under a code of ethics.

The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) gives journalists some ethical guidelines, the first of which is as follows.

1.  Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.  Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.  Do your utmost  to give a fair opportunity for reply.

This relates directly to the accidental (or otherwise) misrepresentation of statistical data. Selecting data sets that support a predetermined story angle is not responsible journalism; combing through data sets and finding a story is responsible journalism.

The Australian is responsible of committing the former offense, as reported on the Refugee Council of Australia’s (RCOA) website.

On 8 August 2015, The Australian newspaper published an article which selectively misrepresented statistics analysed by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) under the misleading headline, “Asylum seekers: Australia pulling its weight on refugees”.

The RCOA point out in their article that the author, Stefanie Balogh, did not contact the Council, but selectively misrepresented statistics presented in one of the RCOA’s papers, found here.

A graphical representation of the data used in The Australian's article, as shown on RCOA's website.

A graphical representation of the data used in The Australian’s article, as shown on RCOA’s website.

Understandably, the Council sought to rectify the situation and inform The Australian’s readers of the newspaper’s “blatant misrepresentation”, with the RCOA’s CEO drafting the following letter to the editor.

Dear Editor,

It’s disappointing that The Australian misrepresents the Refugee Council of Australia’s analysis of global refugee statistics. Few people outside of Australia would accept the assertion that our nation’s response to refugees was the most generous per capita in 2014 (The Australian 8 August, 2015 Australia pulling its weight on refugees).

To compare Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, we need to look at both components of the program – the issuing of permanent protection visas to refugees recognised through the asylum process and the resettlement of refugees from other countries.

In the 2014 calendar year, UNHCR statistics show that Australia recognised 2,780 refugees through its asylum process and resettled 11,570 refugees from other countries, assisting 14,350 refugees in all.

Around the world, 3,262,960 people were recognised as refugees through asylum processes and 105,197 were resettled, a total of 3,368,157.

By this measure, Australia assisted 0.43% of the refugees recognised or resettled in 2014. It was ranked 22nd overall, 28th per capita and 46th relative to total GDP.

Lebanon’s recognition of 364,129 refugees was 120 times greater on a per capita basis than Australia’s total response.

Of the countries which typically grant permanent residency to recognised and resettled refugees, Sweden’s per capita response was 5.8 times greater than Australia’s, with 32,347 refugees recognised and 1,971 resettled.

No amount of selective use of statistics will hide the fact that the Australian Government cut its refugee program by one third in 2013 while the world’s displacement crisis was growing to its highest level in 70 years.

Paul Power
Chief Executive Officer
Refugee Council of Australia

Letter sourced from RCOA’s website.

A snapshot of some of the data Stefanie Balogh chose from. Screenshot from the RCOA's website.

A snapshot of some of the data Stefanie Balogh chose from. Screenshot from the RCOA’s website.

Publishing this letter would not only clear up the misrepresentation, but would also give fair opportunity for reply, as stated in the MEAA’s Code of Ethics (see above).

However, The Australian decided to published an edited version of the above letter, without first consluting the RCOA. The version that the newspaper published is as follows.

Around the world, 3,262,960 people were recognised as refugees through asylum processes and 105,197 were resettled, a total of 3,368,157.

By this measure, Australia assisted 0.43 per cent of the refugees recognised or resettled in 2014. It was ranked 22nd overall, 28th per capita and 46th relative to total GDP.

Paul Power, CEO, Refugee Council of Australia, Surry Hills, NSW

Letter sourced from RCOA’s website.

On comparing the two, the newspaper’s censorship and refusal to offer fair opportunity for reply is obvious. Not only does the published letter suggest that RCOA’s CEO agreed with the article, but it does not, as the Council states, “make clear in the public mind the misrepresentation that has been made”.

As a journalism student, I am learning that journalists have many responsibilities. One responsibility is to tell the news how it is, not warping it to fit agendas. Data should dictate the story, the story should not dictate what data is used.

Another lesson is to always report fairly and honestly, because someone will always call bullshit.

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