Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)
Country/area: United Kingdom
Organisation: BBC News
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 3 Aug 2019
Credit: Thomas Mackintosh, Steve Swann, Jodi Law, Danny Shaw, Tom Symonds, Sarah Lee, David Brown, Wesley Stephenson
Throughout 2019 a team of journalists recorded details of every single homicide in the UK as and when they happened by creating and maintaining a comprehensive and detailed database. The aim was to find out why the murder rate was on the rise and what were the factors behind each death. Interwoven with testimony from trials, interviews with the families and friends of victims and killers, with police, lawyers, criminologists and politicians was data gathered through Freedom of Information requests. It presented a disturbing picture of violence in the UK and explodes the myths supporting so much contemporary stereotypes.
No other media outlet, or indeed the Office of National Statistics, has captured data of this kind from across the UK. With data at the heart of all the stories we combined it with powerful reporting on cases and crimes which often attracted too little attention in a news agenda dominated by Brexit in 2019.
Each part of the project featured on many parts of the BBC including the flagship radio programme ‘Today’ and also made the 1800 and 2200 national news bulletins. Various regional packages were made for different parts of the UK to bespoke the data and cases to each area. The data and stories were often picked up by other national newspapers and broadcasters.
According to Chartbeat, the online articles maintained strong engagement and, by the BBC’s own Telescope metrics, accrued over 3m unique page views. The work attracted praise from criminologists and comments from senior UK government officials including the Home Secretary and then Policing Minister.
In December 2019 the project recieved a British Journalism Award in the Crime and Legal Affairs category. The judges said: “The subject area is one that lends itself to stereotypical responses, like the idea that this was mainly people in their teens stabbing each other. This comprehensive data analysis paints a far more in-depth picture of what is happening.”
A Feedly account was set up which gathered every press release from the UK’s 46 police forces and this was then filtered to display only the cases which included the words murder, manslaughter or infanticide in. Details were logged in a separate Excel spreadsheet and then a Google spreadsheet which had formulas which made it easy to see how many homicides there had been, details of every victim, their age, the police force involved and the causes of death as well as information about subsequent arrests, charges and trial dates.
As this was a unique dataset we needed to get information about previous years statistics, so FOIs were sent to each police force to get this historical data. Again, details were split into the causes of death, location and whether domestic violence or gangs were a factor in the homicide. That information would then be put into a separate spreadsheet and provided the 2019 with an official comparison for each part of the project when needed.
Locations of each death were also taken and coordinates were gathered and put into the Google spreadsheet. This allowed for an interactive map to plot each homicide and gave the reader a far better understanding as to where the homicides were occurring. Photos were also collected from each police force of each victim and used to create the interactive ‘Facewalls’ which visualised the stories of the people to be killed in 2019 in the UK.
The project did not just draw on raw data journalism but it also benefited from old-fashioned courtroom reporting which allowed for us to explain how complicated the circumstances were behind many of the 2019 homicides.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The project was split up into different parts, the first 100 homicides, the first 100 fatal stabbings, domestic violence killings at a five-year high and the end goal of a big piece reviewing and analysing the whole of 2019 – although this was published in early 2020. The database also regularly provided many parts of the BBC with up-to-date homicide statistics – often bespoke to certain regional areas.
All that considered, it gave us our main difficulty as we knew that we would find that the status of a homicide investigation can change over time. For example some turn out not to be homicides – and police forces tend not to proactively put this information out. So, it meant in the lead up to every part of the project about to go to broadcast – the data would have to be forensically double-checked with each of the 46 police forces to make sure the figures, names and homicides we had recorded were correct, if any had been downgraded or indeed if any had been missed.
Some police forces were more helpful than others and it often took weeks to get the entire dataset checked. It involved tireless efforts from members of the team to call and email police forces who had not responded as well as managing the editorial team to make sure graphics, maps and information were all up to date.
The team’s working was so rigorous that once each of the parts of the project were published and broadcasted – not once did any police force complain or say any of the published information was incorrect.
What can others learn from this project?
The biggest thing this project achieved was that it changed public perception in that not all murders in the UK were linked to gangs, drugs and teenagers. London often dominates the headlines, but the project showed that other parts of the UK have just as complicated issues to deal with when it comes to stopping the rise in homicides.
With original raw data gathering it adds real strength to any public perceptions which could be challenged or indeed proved. Whether that be politics, American shootings, transport, climate change or housing – public issues can all benefit from up-to-date raw data if there is a team which is forensic enough to stick with it.
But, while the data is importantly gathered it is crucial that any data is double-checked so to be sure not to mislead. Advice from the team would be to think way ahead of any broadcast dates so that nothing is delayed.
While, the gathering of the data was crucial for all aspects of the project, but what it also benefited from was getting out of the office to listen to the real circumstances behind the deaths. The team found dozens of trivial disputes with tragic outcomes brought about by clouded, spaced out decision-making – which again was only possible by members of the team covering for each other at times and being given the time to not be behind a computer screen.
The comprehensive data analysis provided a breakdown for each police force too and we could see which areas were seeing a drop in homicides – not just an increase. We were able to reveal what some forces were doing differently to others and what some have since taken onboard.