Death by the numbers

In today’s Ottawa citizen, Dan Gardner is lamenting the fact the media keeps reporting accident deaths while ignoring good news about road safety. He makes an excellent point: The media love to use narratives to tell stories – because people love to hear them of course. That is better done with people, conflict, drama – that’s just as true in newsrooms as it is in Hollywood. “Study: Motor vehicle accident deaths, 1979 to 2004” may not be compelling storytelling material. “Eight youth killed in New Brunswick van crash” is excellent. Of course, the accumulation of car crash news leaves the public with the impression that roads are getting more and more dangerous. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?

Gardner wants to see newsrooms and the public educated in the use of statistics, so that people can at least understand what they read (that is essentially what his book tries to achieve). Good luck with that! It is my experience that most reporters lack the knowledge and interest to calculate anything more complex than a simple percentage. And if reporters cannot understand it, there is no chance they can present it to the public in a way that is both interesting and true.

PR professionals have a responsibility in this. We are often lazy when faced with stats-laden reports to pitch to reporters. How many news releases like this one have you seen? Often more than reporters, we are the ones who shape the stories that end up in the media. It’s our job to bridge the gulf between the cold data and the world they describe.

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