I happened to watch the BBC Newswatch item last week. To quote the BBC's own description, the programme presents: "viewers' opinions on the coverage of events by BBC News, addressed by the editors and decision makers in charge". The latest episode covered the use of graphics to help explain the numbers behind the budget. The main criticism was that, rather than helping to explain the complexity behind the numbers, the graphics were just a distracting irrelevance and another example of 'dumbing down'.
The featured sequence showed the BBC's economics editor, Kamal Ahmed, standing in a busy street, talking about key aspects of the economy, and holding out his hands out for superimposed number graphics to land on them. It's hard to understand how just seeing a large red 2.8% descend from the sky to land and bounce around on someone's hand actually helps explain what 2.8% inflation means any more than saying the words does. One viewer compared it to Sesame Street.
Although the irrelevant use of graphics does little to help, and may well distract, this is not the most serious charge that can be directed at the BBC, and most other broadcasters. Far worse is the wasted opportunity to use graphics in a meaningful way to expose the truth behind the raw numbers. Without wishing to get into the politics behind the issue, a very current example is the debate on school funding. Dozens of times over the past few weeks the news has covered complaints that school funding is inadequate and the future funding plans will lead to widespread issues in education. Nearly every time, the government's statement that 'education funding is at its highest ever level' is quoted as the counter argument. This would be an ideal opportunity to use graphics to highlight the relevance or otherwise of the government's claim. Those arguing for increased funding would point out that the background of increasing pupil numbers and inflation, means that referring to the absolute figure for funding, is close to irrelevant. A simple chart could provide the necessary context for understanding the relative merits of the opposing arguments.
As another viewer suggested towards the end of the Newswatch program, it is the lack of context that so often makes the use of numbers, whether spoken or accompanied by cuddly, brightly-coloured pictures of numbers, close to meaningless. The example referred to was the £2bn increase for social care announced in the budget. As the viewer pointed out, the absolute figure of £2bn gives very little idea of how significant the increase is, without knowing the current total of the social care budget. In addition, some idea of the historical trend of social care funding would also have added to the understanding of the importance of the increase.
It does sometimes seem that the use of quantitative graphics in broadcasting is driven by considerations of visual design and impact rather than any attempt to communicate understanding. It would be interesting to see a graphic showing the proportion of BBC programme makers (as opposed to those in technical roles) that have a background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
I seem to remember the ICAEW offering media training. This was to help ICAEW members in roles that might require exposure to the media. Perhaps ICAEW media training should instead refer to the ICAEW, as internationally renowned experts in the use of business graphics, training members of the media in how to present quantitative information effectively using the ever-increasing range of tools available.