OPINION15 May 2017

Will the public’s faith in statistics die?

Opinion UK

Everyone benefits from sensible reporting of robust data so market researchers should think about how surveys will be interpreted by journalists from the outset.

Reading a newspaper_crop

For those not involved in insights, marketing or data, AKA the general public, faith and trust in statistics is heavily linked to media representation of data. Take a look at any newspaper today and you’ll find a poll or attitudinal survey forms the basis of many a news story.

The work of market researchers has never been more newsworthy – whether it’s a political poll or a PR activity from a brand or non-profit – data and statistics are a cornerstone of an unquenchable thirst for new news.

Unfortunately this thirst has created a media environment which appears to value interpretation and fact checking less than providing new content for the machine. What’s more, the general public are reacting to this new media era in a very negative way, which may potentially impact the way they view statistics and data.

Last month, Network Research conducted a study with Marketing Week into the public trust in news and media. We found that trust has declined significantly in media outlets over the past 12 months. A third of the nationally representative sample of 1,000 UK adults surveyed stated that their trust in the reliability of information presented by media outlets has reduced since the start of 2016.

Half of those surveyed suspected they have unwittingly consumed fake news in a publication in the past 12 months, and of those 75% trust the publication less because of it.

This lack of trust has implications. Sixty-six per cent feel there is a general disregard of facts these days, while 63% think the media needs more regulation, and only 30% of people trust journalists. As more data is being used, or sometimes simply made up, for news stories, this decline in media trust could potentially impact on the perceived reliability in all polls and market research studies by association.

But what can we do to halt this slide into suspicion? 

At Network we will always endeavour to foster a direct dialogue with any journalist or editor that wants to use our data in a story. That way we can ensure as far as possible that any narrative created by the publication is true and accurate in the context of the data.

This is usually no problem with trade publications but, based on anecdotal evidence, few agencies are handling their PR or interacting in the media in this way. As an industry, we are very uncommunicative beyond our own trade publications. Plus it’s incredibly hard to discuss research with mainstream media titles which most of the time are picking up press releases and drawing their own, sometimes partisan conclusions, based on a handful of data points.

It comes back again to the public perception of research, which I mentioned in a previous blog here on Research Live. The onus is on the industry to communicate the detail and truth behind data and insight much more proactively with the broader media.

This doesn’t mean publicising the value of research per se, it means being really clear and positive with how we talk about the content of what we do, so improving the understanding of statistics and data and providing journalists with the tools and opportunities to better interpret the data they receive.

So, next time you’re preparing a press release or report based on a new study, spare a thought to how you’re communicating it and how it could potentially be interpreted by the media. There are much broader implications for every study we do, than may immediately be obvious.

Virginia Monk is managing director at Network Research


7 years ago

As ever it's a case of 'Know your audience' and write accordingly - or suffer the consequences.

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7 years ago

There are guidelines on this developed jointly by CIPR/MRS/RSS and the MRS Code requires research providers to check how clients report findings. But.....................

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