A while ago, I noted the tendency apparent in Statistics New Zealand press releases to “accentuate the positive” (at least as staff seem to see it) in any data releases they were making.
In the last few years, Statistics New Zealand has taken to “spinning” its statistical releases. I use the term advisedly. I’m sure all the numbers are reported entirely accurately, but my issue is more with which numbers, and which comparisons, they choose to highlight. Almost always, they seem to emphasise what staff (and management?) presumably regard as good news. Is that quite the job of a national statistics agency? Personally, I value good quality data, and technical explanations for apparent oddities – and the assurance that SNZ has no agenda other than good quality data, adequately explained. There are plenty of others out there (backbenchers in parliamentary questions?) to highlight the good, or not so good.
I was almost moved to comment yesterday when the business demography data were released, but had better things to do with my time. But there was another, rather more egregious, example this morning, when the building consents release was headed up “Home building accelerates in the north”, even though the data were showing a second successive five per cent monthly seasonally adjusted fall for the country as a whole. Of course, those falls came after the rather odd 20 per cent increase in the month of July.
I’m not sure why Statistics New Zealand seems to regard it as appropriate to spin their releases this way. Having thought about it a little more, I wonder if the managers and deputy secretaries have KPIs for the amount of media coverage their releases get. If so, there might be an incentive to run a strong story line in the release headline (or the SNZ text). It could be downbeat stories as well as upbeat ones – either might help meet these media targets. But downbeat stories prompted by SNZ headlines would be more likely to prompt complaints from ministers’ offices, and all public servants want as few of those as possible.
Is that the answer? Perhaps not, but there must be something behind it.
And I’m not suggesting they should set out to accentuate the negative – again there are plenty of other people to do that. But they are a statistics agency, whose integrity and impartiality we rely on. Perhaps this is boring economist speak, but what would have been wrong with a heading this morning “September building consents data released”, and an opening sentence that read “the number of residential building consents fell in September for the second successive month, following a very large increase in July. Consents in Auckland appear to be growing more rapidly than those in most of the rest of the country.”?
How about leaving the storytelling to journalists, politicians, economists….and even bloggers.
UPDATE: A glance at this month’s ABS releases suggests they mostly do these things better.