BBC home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani discusses crime statistics
Yesterday I blogged some notes from a session at the “Data and news sourcing” event which had a focus on the reporting of crime statistics. Statistician and self-confessed “semi-detached journalist” Michael Blastland opened the panel, and he was followed by Chief Constable Andrew Trotter who described accurate reporting as “A hopeless quest”.
The third person talking on the panel was BBC home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani. He said that he thought everybody understood that the overall crime trend had been downwards for sometime, but people want to hear interesting stories, and interest is generated when something bucks the trend. He cited an example where the BBC had been reporting that crime was down 7%, but having been given exactly the same set of figures and press briefing, The Telegraph’s headline was “Household theft up”.
Dominic said that the BBC agonises over how to report crime, as it doesn’t want Licence Fee payers to think that the Corporation has “taken a line”. But his colleagues can sometimes get over-excited. He recalled one particular set of Home Office figures where they had sent a statistician on for the first twenty minutes of a presentation to explain to the press pack the changes to the reporting methodology, so that they didn’t misinterpret them. Casciani said that nevertheless some BBC reporters rushed out anyway and delivered the incorrect narrative that violent crime was up.
He felt new media was a real opportunity to improve reporting, as interactive tools meant it was easier to portray changing trends over time. He argued that we’ve got nowhere near the ability of the US to really delve into the figures - indeed crime stats in the UK are not as useful as the data we have about schools.
One of Dominic’s final points was that the figures alone still don’t explain what is going on. With the recession, there had been an expectation that burglary would increase, as it had during the early eighties. This doesn’t seem to have happened, and Dominic is left really just speculating about the reasons - that it is easier to make your home secure these days, and that electrical goods have become so cheap as to make them less worth stealing. However, no amount of interrogating the data will prove that those are really the reasons.
The fourth speaker on the panel was Conrad Quilty-Harper from The Telegraph. In my next post about this session I’ll have my notes on him arguing that he finds the current official iteration of crime maps unhelpful amongst other things.