A screenshot of a cell phone

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Warning for dim journos: This graph has been cropped to fit in page.

I complained on November the 9th that, in covering a child death, Reporting Scotland had wrongly identified a ‘spike’ in the above graph provided by Health Protection Scotland:

Coverage of child death in Glasgow hospital: The reporter claims that ‘Earlier this week an official report found a spike in infections around the time of Millie’s death at the hospital.’ This is untrue. The word ‘spike’ is not used in the engineers’ report because the increase in cases reported is statistically insignificant. The false impression given of a spike is due to a failure to read a graph properly. It’s a classic often seen in attempts to dramatize the insignificant. There were 400 children being treated at the same time as the tragic events and thousands over the longer period presented along the vertical axis of the graph. So, the vertical axis should not stop conveniently at 25 but should rise to at least 400 and only that if the figures along the horizontal axis are reduced from quarterly figures to daily figures. The maximum number of reports in one quarter was around twenty. That would be 1 in every 3 to 4 days or less than one out of 400 patients in a day being referred in this way. Can you see the graph now? The so-called spike would then be accurately represented as a barely visibly blip. There was no ‘spike’.

Health Protection Scotland made no claim of a ‘spike’ because they know that they have shortened the height of the graph to fit it into a page. Using the quarterly number of infections detected, to make the bars visible at all, as in most days there were no counts or at most one, the vertical axis would have to represent the number of patients treated, at least 400 and probably more. You couldn’t fit an accurate graph on even a whole page, so the graph presented needs a bit of intelligence to read it, keeping that scale in mind, and then make sense of it.

After considerable delay trying to make sense of my complaint, the Editor replied on 16th December. After much waffling, she writes:

You say: “The false impression given of a spike is due to a failure to read a graph properly.” In view of your subsequent criticism of the graph itself, I think with respect that your grievance on that issue is not with us but with others, to whom you may wish to refer your complaint.

Let me reiterate. The official report does not use the word ‘spike’ though the BBC report says it does. In the BBC’s longer web report, they attribute the term to a Professor Leitch, not the report author, but this does not remove our expectation that they will have the mathematical ability to read a graph. Many 12-year-olds could.