December 12, 2013

Stats abuse in The Press, Dom Post smacked by Press Council

The New Zealand media is self-regulating – that is, it governs its own, and the Press Council is the port of call for public complaints about print media. Two complaints that have been upheld recently focused on the use/abuse of statistical information. I’m posting about these  not to take a dig at my esteemed colleagues, but to point out how we can avoid falling into a hole and/or creating a damaging, discriminatory or dangerous urban myth.

The first complaint concerns the The Press (Weekend) newspaper, which published an article on Saturday October 12, 2013, about health data from the Canterbury District Health Board concerning the increase in the sexually-transmitted infection chlamydia in the region since 2011. The headline of the article was Luck of the Irish has downside in sex-disease stats. The intro read “Irish workers helping with the rebuild are sharing the love but it seems they may also be helping to spread sexual disease.”

The Press Council noted there was no statistical information given to support the statements linking the Irish to the chlamydia. The link between the Irish nationals and the chlamydia statistics was of the newspaper’s making and not supported by any reported information, making the report inaccurate and discriminatory.  Read the full decision here.

The second complaint concerns the Dominion Post. On August 12, 2013, under the headline Boys slip further in school’s co-ed class, the paper published a story and table about achievement rates in 2012 for NCEA level 3 students in its circulation area, with the table reporting on highest and lowest achieving schools. The table gave pass rates for the highest achieving schools, but failure rates for the lowest achieving schools. Under the heading “Lowest Achieving Hawke’s Bay Schools” the table listed Wairoa High School 43.8% not achieved; Dannevirke High School: 40%; Taradale High School: 36.2%. The school complained that this conveyed a misleading impression that only 36.2% of its students had passed. In fact, 63.8% had.

It turns out that the original NZQA figures showed the number of year 13 students who had NOT passed NCEA level 3. The newspaper said that it had decided to turn the figures around to assist readers and also show how well most schools and students had performed.  In upholding the complaint, the Press Council said “A table provides readers with a quick and ready means of assessing data. But when a comparison is being made it is important that the data is presented in such a way as to make the comparison valid. The use of two differing measures of data in the same table was therefore confusing and misleading.” The editor said, ” … I do accept that we would have been better advised to have used only one measure throughout. I am happy to give an undertaking that we will not be using that format again.” Read the full decision here.




Atakohu Middleton is an Auckland journalist with a keen interest in the way the media uses/abuses data. She happens to be married to a statistician. See all posts by Atakohu Middleton »