Power of the percentage

June 10, 2009

Good example of the power of percentages to put figures in context (or, rather, how the lack thereof weakens a story) – the BBC, among others, reports new Health Secretary’s Andy Burnham’s defence of the NHS against the backgrop of a budget cut. The cut – according to the 10am news bulletin on Radio 4 – is a “real-terms reduction of between £8bn and 10bn over the three years after 2011” (also reported on the BBC website).

Now £10bn is an impressive figure in anyone’s books; but without knowing the size of the NHS budget, it’s difficult to appreciate how significant this shortfall will be. The website, to be fair, goes on to explain the budget for 2010-11 is forecast at £110bn and also helpfully gives examples of what the £10bn could fund, such as a year’s mental health services for around 26m people.

But the radio report gave none of this context. Now it would be unreasonable to expect a brief radio summary to match the depth of an online report; however, the inclusion of one simple figure would have achieved much – that figure is the percentage of the total budget that the shortfall represents.

Radio is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to reporting figures, as it can draw on none of the visual aids which other media can call on – but this is no excuse for failing to give one figure which immediately contextualises and so strengthens the story.

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