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Jul 03 2009

Statistics misuse in BBC News magazine

Category: Bad News Author:

It’s far from the most egregious failure of statistics reporting, but this article in the BBC News’ Magazine section is really rather pointless. It’s clearly not meant as any sort of serious commentary on the appropriateness of the prison time given for various offences, but why even include crimes where the probable offender was killed before he could be sentenced (the 1990 City bonds robbery) or where no person or group was even charged (the 2004 Northern Bank robbery)? Instead, the graphic for the 1990 crime displays the prison time given to the launderer of the funds, which is hardly the same as committing the robbery.

Even for those crimes where suspects were actually put away, the scoring doesn’t seem to make much sense. “The prison terms cited represent the combined length of sentences” (bold in source) – so you’d expect crimes with more people behind them to score ‘higher’ on this metric, even if each individual involved received a somewhat lesser sentence. For the stated aim of giving a visualization of prison years per stolen sterling, this measure is useless.

As I said, not very important in the grander scheme of things, but just an example of the automatic, reflexive misuse of statistics by the media whenever a fancy graphic is desired.

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