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Working as a BBC consultant statistician

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be accepted on the BBC News secondment programme. I packed up my GSS Good Practice Advisor belongings, left ONS Newport and set off for the bright lights of New Broadcasting House in central London. This meant relocating to London for the summer and moving in with my dad and step-mum – the challenges of that arrangement are for another blog!

I arrived at the Beeb on my first morning (only slightly harried by the commute) and was met by Amanda Farnsworth, the Head of the Visual Journalism team. Amanda hollered my name across reception, enthusiastically greeted me and guided me through the revolving doors to the mezzanine. I must admit to a few butterflies in my tummy when I looked down over the iconic BBC Newsroom for the first time. Fortunately, before the nerves could take hold, the humdrum of induction activities began. There’s nothing quite like a mandatory fire-safety e-learning course to bring you back down to earth.

I was introduced to the rest of the Visual Journalism team by my ‘buddy’, Wesley Stephenson (of ‘More or Less’ fame) who would be looking out for me during my placement. Wesley is one of the Senior Data Journalists, but the team also included Visual Journalists, Editors, Data Scientists, Software Developers, User Experience Designers, Graphic Designers, Project Managers and last but not least, the BBC’s Head of Statistics, Robert Cuffe.

Robert was on shared parental leave for my first six weeks at the BBC, so Wesley took me under his wing, introducing me to the journalists, editors and producers in New Broadcasting House and other BBC offices around the UK. As the rather grandly titled ‘Consultant Statistician’, I was on hand to support journalists to find, understand and use statistics accurately and appropriately.

My day-to-day work included:

  • helping journalists digest and communicate the headline messages from major 9:30 releases, for example, the latest national life tables
  • working closely with the Data Journalists to find granular data, such as earnings for a rent affordability story
  • cleaning and analysing data for new stories

All this was in the familiar and relatively comfortable arena of official statistics. Statistical claims in press releases from other organisations were a different kettle of fish. On more than one occasion, after requesting and reviewing the available data, I had to “kill the story” because the claims made couldn’t be backed up by the statistics. This was probably the most challenging, but important, part of the role and has made me even more of an advocate for official statistics and the Code of Practice.

In my final few weeks, I worked with Robert to develop a plan for raising statistical understanding and promoting use of good quality statistics in BBC news. We started by reviewing the statistics session in the induction for new journalists and the guidance for policy professionals created by the Good Practice Team. This material, alongside our experience of answering queries from journalists, gave us a set of topics for training and resources. There are thousands of journalists across the BBC, and I left Robert grappling with the question of how to reach them all.

Since returning to the ONS last month, I’ve been talking to colleagues and reflecting on my time at the BBC. My role in the Good Practice Team focuses heavily on the presentation and communication of official statistics. Being able to see first-hand how journalists access, interpret and present our statistics was invaluable for understanding how we can make our outputs better. I’m already working with my colleagues in the Best Practice and Impact division to ensure we are providing effective support for official statistics producers to be as helpful as possible to users.

If you’re interested in a secondment to BBC News, please email gss.careers@ons.gov.uk. It’s a fantastic development opportunity and an exciting place to work for a few months – you might even spot some famous faces! If you’d like to have a chat about my experience, feel free to email me: jessica.evans@ons.gov.uk.

Jessica Evans
Hannah Thomas
Good Practice Team Advisor