This study explores the role of the media as an intermediary for the communication of economic statistics to the UK public. To do so, we used the monthly labour market release, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as a case study. We interviewed eight journalists and conducted a content analysis of 458 news stories that covered ONS labour market statistics, to examine how the labour market release is used by journalists and how the information affects the subsequent media coverage. We also ran a small-sample online experiment with journalists and journalism students to investigate how changes to the presentation of labour market statistics may affect media coverage.
We find that the ONS labour market release drives media reporting. The information in the monthly releases and the main quote from the ONS are central to the way the media report the labour market statistics, both in terms of the focus of reporting, and what numbers are used. This means that the ONS, through their releases, has an important role in shaping and improving communication to the public, even if their releases are not necessarily consumed directly by the public.
It is therefore important for the ONS, and similar organisations, to monitor the impact on media reporting when fundamental changes are made to key economic statistics releases, and to consider how changes to existing releases or the introduction of additional outputs could potentially help improve media reporting. In particular, it would be useful to explore ways to provide more context to figures or make it easier for journalists to identify other contexts themselves; continue to develop and improve administrative data sources that are sometimes easier to convey to the public compared to data based on surveys; and focus on explaining statistics that are important, but are seen as hard to communicate by journalists, such as economic inactivity. More broadly, we propose that the wider economics community should consider their role as an intermediary more carefully, including how to establish stronger relationships and support journalists’ reporting on economic statistics more effectively, and whether and how to communicate more directly with the wider public.