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A good number goes a long way with the media

This morning, the UK’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger did an interview on the BBC’s Today Programme in which she argued that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present because we know:

“A single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than in a typical house.”

The interview (which you can listen to here for the next 7 days) and figure Ms Berger quoted have been picked up almost verbatim by the mainstream media including The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

As someone who does a lot of work on risk communication I was immediately struck by the 23x figure, partly because of its numerical value and partly because of the visual picture it conjured up of smoky cars and houses.

When humans assess a new risk the brain initially does so by generating images (also known as mental models). This goes some way to explaining why some experts or campaigners are better at explaining risks than others.  Numbers are important as proof – but numbers which create pictures or explain relationships are even better because they allow the bit of the brain that deals with risk to process them more meaningfully. This is something that scientists or other ‘rational’, evidence based professions often overlook when talking about the risk posed by issues as diverse as fracking, GM or chemicals.

The brain assesses risk in pictures

But it’s a lesson that can equally apply to other number-heavy professions when preparing experts for interview. Ms Berger only used two figures in her interview (the other was 500,000 children a week) but they were simple, meaningful and clear.

Picking a few clear numbers and taking the time to put them in context is a far better use of interview preparation time than digging out 20. I have no idea where Ms Berger got her figures  (nor am I implying that they aren’t true). But clearly, they made enough of an impact on the mainstream press who picked them up unchallenged thus ensuring even more free PR for the policy and presumably more exposure for Ms Berger.

A good number counts for a lot with journalists: and some might say its value can’t be measured.

About Laura Shields

Laura Shields is Brussels Director of The Media Coach. After graduating from Cambridge University in 2000, she worked as a financial producer for CNN and CNBC Europe in London before moving to BBC News as the Economics and Business Analyst. At the BBC Laura also produced political and financial news for Radio 4′s World at One and PM programmes and was a key member of the teams that produced the TV results coverage for the UK, US and European elections. Laura was a contributor to the BBC website and has also had her work published in Open Democracy and Communication Director and Outsource Magazines. Laura is now working as a media trainer, journalist and panel moderator based in Brussels. As a journalist she reports from the major EU Summits and moderates high level conferences and panels for clients including the European Commission and Parliament, the UN, businesses and NGOs. Laura hosts Media Training, Presentation Training, Social Media Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building courses for The Media Coach.

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  1. Adrian Whyle
    Adrian Whyle says:

    Excellent blog Laura.

    Having a technical background it is so easy to blizzard people with data.

    Your article makes me reflect that “less is more”.

    Keep the blogs coming

    Reply

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