Thursday, April 29, 2010

Watch out, it's a Wednesday

We had a visit last week at Chronicle Towers from some jolly friendly people from the BBC.

They've set up a website under the umbrella of the BBC College of Journalism which brings together a lot of very sensible advice to those of us who make our living from news gathering and publishing.

Much of it is geared towards TV and radio, but plenty of it is applicable to any form of journalism – or indeed to anyone who writes as part of their job.

The guidance ranges from the practical – how to spot fake pictures, how the courts operate – to the inspirational.

If you watch one internet video this week, then visit the site and track down Alan Little's passionate and humbling 15-minute guide to clear and authoritative writing.

But tucked away in the depths of the site is a section on how to use statistics, averages and percentages – and how easy it is for journalists to misuse them. It's the sort of thing that makes your everyday newshound go all glassy-eyed and start to wonder where the next pint's coming from, but persevere with it and you'll realise how dangerous numbers can be when they get into the wrong hands.

To illustrate, here's a raw and apparently chilling statistic: There are at least twice as many dangerous nutcases on the roads on a Wednesday morning as at any other time of the week.

On the face of things it sounds shocking. But does it stand up to numerical scrutiny?

Well, here's a brief analysis, based on one columnist's experience.

It's Wednesday, school-run time. You and family hop in motor, fire up CD player and hit the road. Two minutes into journey, you reach the narrow bit where they haven't got round to marking double yellow lines and are still using parked cars as ad-hoc traffic calming measure.

Calming? In a pig's eye. Everyone is rushing for the same gaps and no one's giving way or waving to say "thank you".

Drop off Mrs D for a day at one side of the pupil/teacher interface, continue with young Miss D on way to opposite side of interface. Pull into supermarket car park to top up with essentials. Open boot to load said essentials.

Car behind drives into leg.

Fury at other driver tempered by relief at non-breakage of tibia and/or fibula. Onwards and upwards, and drop off youngster.

Last leg (ho ho) of journey. Turning right at T-junction. Bike pulls up on left side. Road in front clear, start forward. Bike shoots ahead, turns right in front of bonnet. Slam on brakes, avoid bike by inches.

Only memorable feature of cyclist: in-ear headphones.

Moment of decision: descend into road rage or take deep breath and reflect that statistically, it's just another Wednesday morning? QED.

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