Do your statistics stigmatise?


Data and statistics are convincing. And journalists have a duty to report them with fairness and accuracy – or risk misleading the public. When reporting on issues associated with poverty, even more is at stake. Media reports that have misused employment, welfare, and other socioeconomic statistics not only create undue public perceptions, but are often used to inform public policy responses.

“These stories, which are often extreme or sensationalized, have been used to justify benefit cuts or to suggest unemployment is a lifestyle”, said Rachel Broady, from the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ). “These stories have a real impact on people's lives.”

In response, the NUJ and Church Action on Poverty have released new guidelines on reporting poverty. The pack provides information to help journalists understand the day-to-day realities of poverty and avoid common misperceptions.

For data journalists specifically, the pack includes a section that examines ways the media has used statistics misleadingly. As a taster, the below extract outlines three lessons from news reports on welfare benefits in the United Kingdom.

1. ‘Troubled Families’

A Government policy aims to focus resources on 120,000 ‘Troubled Families’ – essentially people in severe poverty. The way this policy has been promoted and reported has led to some of the worst stigmatization of people who are already struggling.

For example, a research paper presented 16 case studies and said “The prevalence of child sexual and physical abuse [and sometimes child rape] was striking and shocking”. This was presented in many news stories as being representative of all 120,000 ‘Troubled Families’. The Sun ran a story titled “Child Abuse Rife in Hell Families – report exposes 120,000 worst households”. The Daily Star referred to all 120,000 families as “Britain’s worst scumbags”.

The Press Complaints Commission required a number of newspapers to publish corrections to their reports.

The lesson: case studies are not necessarily representative of wider issues, and shouldn’t be presented as if they are.

2. Expenditure on benefits

A common theme in policy and news coverage is that the benefits bill is “out of control” and represents a significant portion of national public spending.

The figure is often inflated by including pensions, housing benefit (which goes direct to landlords) and tax credits (which go to working people) alongside other benefits.


Image: Based on 2015–16 figures, expenditure on benefits (not including pensions) made up 17% of total public spending; pensions alone made up another 12%.

Partly because of this misleading reporting, polls found in 2011 that on average people thought that 41 per cent of the entire welfare budget was going on benefits to unemployed people (Jobseekers’ Allowance and income support), while the true figure was 3 per cent.

The lesson: as the NUJ guidelines state: “News reports should make every effort to report statistics accurately so it is clear that benefit payments are not the country’s biggest public spending outlay.”

3. Benefit fraud

Media coverage suggests that benefit fraud is a much larger problem than it really is, due both to the number of stories covering the issue and the way it is presented in those stories.

One common way of misleading people is to conflate the figures for fraud and for error (which includes errors made by government as well as claimants). Chancellor George Osborne did this in 2010, claiming that £5 billion was being lost through benefit fraud each year when the actual figure was £1.5 billion.

In recent years the Government’s reported rate of benefit fraud has been historically low, below 1%. The estimated fraud rate for taxation is four to seven times higher. But benefit fraud appears constantly in news stories and policy initiatives.

All this has a major impact on public attitudes and trust. On average, people think that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently – almost 40 times the actual rate. The benefit fraud hotline receives over a quarter of a million calls a year; in the past five years, more than 85% of those accusations turned out to be false.

The lesson: news reports should not exaggerate the scale of benefit fraud or present cases of fraud as typical or representative.

Read the full guidelines here.

Extracts from the guidelines are published here under CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0.