January 26, 2022

Moving Beyond The Executive Summary: Tickers That Can Be Data Stories

Of the many things that fascinate me about Pakistani TV news channels, tickers are probably the worst.

Some days I hope I’m not the only one who has trouble following a news story that this told entirely in tickers. One line of text is suspended on screen for a few seconds before it is replaced entirely by another line. Seldom do these collections of text give any indication to the readers where they are in the story. A ticker, I feel, is the inelegant and directionless cousin of the bulleted list. Some tickers make you scream, “Where’s the news?”

I’m assuming tickers allow broadcast newsrooms to manage more news items in their workflow than might be possible to cover in a bulletin. And not all tickers are bad. Some can provide important information and breaking news updates. It is in this manner that the following tickers on Geo News in mid-November piqued my interest.

Screenshots of Geo News tickers on NAB report.

The Karachi-datelined tickers shared that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had released its performance report for 2019. It seems the report is about the first 10 months of 2019 because the text that follows uses the Urdu phrase “rawan saal” or current year. But the exact number of months is unclear and the tickers never exactly mention the time period.

What comes next is a bunch of absolute numbers from the report about the NAB’s work.

We find out there were 7,527 complaints; 259 of these presumably were found to be authentic, which led to 135 inquiries, of which 62 cases got to criminal investigations and NAB prosecutors filed court references for around half of these – 38. Then there is something about the taxpayers’ money recovered through NAB’s anti-corruption cases. Rs. 3.3 billion recovered during the year (probably as a result of convictions), and another Rs. 491 billion returned by suspects who entered into a plea bargain with the bureau. Bit of a difference there! The report also states 128 suspects were arrested and sent to jail.

So just a few questions then:

>> Is 7,000 complaints a lot? Or does NAB usually get the same number of complaints every year?

>> If only 259 of these thousands of complaints were verified, does that mean the rest were frivolous? I mean, the verified complaints are less than five percent of the total. And is this assumption even correct that the rest of the complaints were discarded. NAB might not have processed the remainder yet, for all I know from the tickers.

>> Were some verified complaints prioritised for inquiry? Were some clubbed together? Did lack of capacity force NAB to only start 135 inquiries? How many inquiries were started in 2018, by the way.

>> Why does the number keep falling by almost a factor of two every step forward: 259, 135, 62, 38. Tickers offer no explanation, of course. They cannot be expected to be so detailed.

>> What were the 38 court references? Surely, one or two or a dozen of these were national news items in the past year. Probably too much to ask.

>> Rs. 3.3 billion recovered from convictions in how many cases? Which cases? Which suspects? What was the biggest embezzlement amount among these cases. Pulling my hair out by now, whatever’s left of them.

>> Oh my god! Rs. 491 billion in plea bargain cases returned to the treasury? How is that not the first ticker! Does NAB routinely recover hundreds of billion of rupees and we all get to watch is the chairman talk about politics in press conferences instead. Or is that a typo? Major anxiety. How many suspects took a ‘guilty’ plea? Were they sentenced at all?

>> Were the 128 suspects sentenced to years in prison or remanded into police custody while their trial goes on?

I suppose it is abundantly clear that there were many data-driven stories here. I do not mind journalists running away with tickers to send a brief update about the NAB report. Clearly it is a public report and every beat reporter will share the “executive summary” findings with their newsrooms so it is not exactly exclusive.

My concern is if these tickers and subsequent beepers might be the extent of the reporting on the NAB annual performance report. If the bureau is publishing summary data, it has most likely done that every year for the past few years. So we can look at trends and make comparisons. Surely we should not judge performance without benchmarks. If there is summary data, then detailed structured data must exist somewhere too. It may reveal individual cases, suspects, amounts alleged to have been embezzled, and amounts recovered. There could be bigger stories here or side stories or the starting points of major news investigations.

We have seen examples of better reporting on NAB’s statistics before, but it requires just the effort to move beyond the executive summary and think of all the unanswered questions. If we do the reporting, the data-driven stories will not be wasted as ephemeral tickers.

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