A lesson in how to misrepresent – a BBC exemplar?
Sometimes the BBC seems to surpass itself for misrepresentation. But maybe it’s just me – see what YOU think!
I think the ‘method’ in play here is as follows:
- a journalist reports statistical evidence for a small number of standard performance metrics for three distinct organisations;
- in most of the report the statistics for each of the three organisations are aggregated – summed;
- the negative story this creates is given prominence throughout the report;
- negatively framed observations are made in ways that imply a similarity – a similarly negative characterisation – for each of the three organisations;
- however, the report also includes graphed statistics for each of the three organisations separately; and
- this reveals that one of the three is an outlier – one of the three does NOT conform either to the negative framing of the aggregated statistics and NOT to the (arguably) justifiable negative framing of the reporting of two out of the three entities.
- but the difference is never mentioned!
If I tell you that the three organisations are called ‘NHS England’, ‘NHS Northern Ireland’ and ‘NHS Scotland’ perhaps the significance of this tale becomes clearer! And it may not be too surprising!
This is what was played out by the BBC on 10 November when reporting on cancer waiting times. What follows comes from a BBC News website article entitled: ‘Cancer care delays: How bad are they in your area?’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-63573718)
The BBC’s health correspondent writes (with my emphasis):
‘There has been a sharp rise in long waits for cancer therapy in the past four years, BBC analysis shows.
‘The number waiting more than the 62-day target time for therapy in the past year has topped 69,000 across England, Northern Ireland and Scotland – twice as many as the same period in 2017-18.’
As a key metric, the BBC article focuses on the proportion of cancer patients waiting longer than the target of 62 days (two months) for treatment in each of the UK nations. It states that: ‘Recent data shows the numbers being referred in for cancer checks is now increasing and is at record levels.’
The article is based on BBC research which: ‘ looked at the latest data for waits for treatment to start following an urgent referral from a GP, although the figures in Scotland also included those identified via screening or during a visit to A&E.’
We are then given quotes from Macmillan Cancer Support, the Royal College of Radiologists and from individual patients about how bad things have become across the UK. I have no doubt for many cancer patients and the NHS staff that care for them, they have! Only an NHS England spokesperson is given a place in the article to provide a response.
But having framed the article that England, NI and Scotland are in similar bad circumstances, we are given this:
Examining the graphs, firstly, note the difference in the percentage of patients waiting longer than 62 days in 2022 based on the BBC’s own graphs:
- England = 36%
- NI = 58%
- Wales = 43%
- Scotland = 21%
So there is a 15 percentage point difference between the proportion of patients waiting more than 62 days in Scotland and the next ‘best’ performing NHS, England’s. This means that the performance of NHS England is c.42% worse than that of NHS Scotland.
Then note the different trends. The BBC article refers to a ‘sharp rise in long waits over the past 4 years’, i.e. between c.2018 and 2022. So what do the above BBC graphs actually reveal? Do they show a similar ‘sharp rise’ in all three nations?
England: there is a c.16 percentage point rise over this four year period;
NI: there is c.22 percentage point rise;
Scotland: there is just a c.6 percentage point rise!
The question begged is obvious! Why does the BBC lump these three national NHS statistics together in the text of the article rather than point up the VERY DIFFERENT, the MUCH MORE FAVOURABLE, position of NHS Scotland based on the BBC’s own graphical presentation of the cancer waiting time statistics? Why not acknowledge explicitly in the text the obvious difference? Most readers of this blog post may harbour the same suspicion I have!