Review: Mark Lawson’s ‘The trouble with rubbery figures’

The trouble with rubbery figures

Concise and factually driven, the piece is broadly researched to expose statistical inaccuracies in a cautionary tale for aspiring writers. Lawson illustrates why readers should be critical about what they believe. He observes journalists use of figures, beginning as a first person, open and honest admission of, ‘one of the silliest mistakes I have made as a reporter…’ because of misuse and poor comprehension of relevant numbers. ‘…I managed to mess up the metric units.’ Inadequately research a story means potentially misunderstanding or omitting details, misrepresenting the data’s worth. ‘Numbers can trip us up, especially when we are dealing with unfamiliar subjects…’ Lawson concedes his error.

Presented numerical muddling from journalists and researchers includes:

  • the 1996 Sydney Morning Herald’s front page on anorexia death rates
  • the British medical journal The Lancet observation of Iraqi deaths from the American invasion,
  • and the Australian Council of Social Services’ claims on domestic abuse.

The MEAA code of ethics ensures journalists ‘scrutinize power, but also exercise it and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust.’ Correcting false numbers and retractions is compulsory if an error is discovered. Writers work to the MEAA Code of Ethics. Under section 12, ‘do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.’

The source for any figures quoted needs to be carefully examined for objectivity, filters involving subject matter, examples of what’s not omitted and reliability. Lawson reminds, ‘any journalist told by [a source] should question the definition.’ Analysis should include how the information was accessed, whether it can be independently verified, motivation behind using high or low figures, if the data adds up with similar or related statistical values and numerical context. Some figures are ‘given to illustrate the depth of the activist’s feeling rather than to reflect reality.’

Figures can be skewed during research, especially if advocates or protestors provide data relevant to their cause. ‘The central questions are whether the reporter has separated fact from opinion and whether sufficient information has been provided for readers to make up their own minds.’ (Conley & Lamble 2006, p 402) Extensive investigation is required to ensure claims are reasonable, present reality and adhere to MEAA Code of Ethics 4., ‘do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.’

Historical data used by journalists requires perspective so figures are presented fairly. Lawson illustrates this point, suggesting battle statistics need to be observed as parts of entire of conflict, rather than being witnessed in isolation. Contextual representation ensures accurate and relevant journalism.

Veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize awarded writer, Michael Gartner sums up the need to be impartial, “if you have an agenda, you should not be in the newspaper business…if you want to change the world, become a teacher or a politician, or a sociologist or a Mom, don’t become a reporter.”

Lawson displays contempt for editors, revealing perceived demands for, ‘something dramatic and colourful for the front page…’, showing he feels pressure to add statistics. Figures need proper fact checking and adequately definition for relevance and appropriate context.


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