Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our media roasts old chestnuts

If a genie appeared from a bottle and offered me one wish, I'd choose to be a columnist on a major newspaper. So I guess you could say I love my job. But there are times when I feel compelled to warn people to be careful about what they read, hear and see in the media.

Many people assume the media give them a representative picture of what's going on in the world beyond their own experience. But this is a misunderstanding of the role of the news media and the nature of "news".

The media select from all the things happening in the world only those things they consider "newsworthy" and thus worth drawing to our attention. What is newsworthy? Anything the media believe their audience will find interesting and nothing they fear the audience will find boring.

What's interesting? Anything unusual. But also anything threatening. It's perfectly clear that people find bad news more interesting than good news, which is why the media give prominence to things that are going wrong and say little about things that are going well.

Most of what's happening in the world is highly predictable and terribly ordinary. This means much news is selected because it's unrepresentative. So there's a high risk it will leave people with a mistaken impression of what's happening in the world.

Journalists like to believe everything they report is new. In truth, it's often just a new example of a familiar story, one the journos know the audience loves to hear again. Sometimes a new, offbeat angle is ignored so the story can be forced to fit a tried-and-true formula.

A lot of news is selected because it will appeal to the audience's prejudices or stir people's emotions in the way they like to be stirred. Consider some recent examples from my field of economic news.

There has been much indignation over the Keneally government's decision to change the tax on poker machines in hotels, with suggestions of undue influence by the Australian Hotels Association. About 60 per cent of hotels with pokies - those that don't make much out of them - will now pay less tax or even no tax.

You have to read the reports carefully to discover the changes are actually "revenue neutral", meaning the savings to the 60 per cent of hotels will be exactly offset by the higher tax paid by the remaining 40 per cent, leaving the government's total revenue unaffected.

Rather deflating of the righteous indignation, don't you think?

The media make no pretence of being bound by the scientific method. Economists are always being reminded not to draw general conclusions from anecdotal evidence rather than economy-wide statistics.

But the media are tellers of stories. They're the industrialised equivalent of cavemen sitting around the fire at night swapping yarns. The telling of stories about other people meets one of our most primitive human needs.

What it doesn't do, however, is give us an accurate picture of what's happening in the world. Take all the stories we're hearing about waste in the Rudd government's program to stimulate the economy by constructing a new building at every primary school.

News gathering is selective. People with complaints of waste - justified or otherwise - have had no trouble getting publicity. People without complaints don't bother approaching the media. And where reporters have encountered people saying everything was fine, these facts would have been ignored as "not news".

There have been enough anecdotes to convince me waste has been a significant problem. The real question is: how significant? What proportion of schools has experienced wastefulness? What proportion of the government's spending has been wasted?

No number of examples of alleged waste can answer these questions. What they can do is cause people who don't understand the biases involved in news gathering to gain the impression "the waste has been huge" or even "all that money has been wasted".

The one thorough report we've seen so far came from the federal Auditor-General. It was critical, but far from damning. One of his findings was that 95 per cent of school principals agreed they were confident the funds "will provide an improvement to my school, which will be of ongoing value to my school and school community".

Every year since 1997 the Reserve Bank has published an annual survey of the fees banks charge to their business and household customers. And every year the media turn the survey results into the same much-loved story: huge increase in the fees banks rip from you and me.

This year, however, the story tended to be relegated to the business section, though the same formula was used: huge increase in the fees banks charge businesses.

You had to read the reports carefully to get the real story: last financial year the fees the banks charged households grew by 3 per cent (the lowest increase since the survey began and far less than the 8 per cent increases in the two previous years), whereas fees charged to business leapt by 13 per cent (far more than in the two previous years).

Most of the growth in fees collected from households came from charges paid by the greater number of people choosing to break their fixed-rate mortgage contracts, but this was largely offset by a fall in banks' income from transaction and account-keeping fees. Much of this was explained by the banks' offers to waive fees to people who made regular deposits, part of their greatly increased competition to attract deposits.

By contrast, most of the huge growth in fees collected from business came from higher fees to existing customers now considered to be more risky and higher fees on undrawn overdrafts.

The story no one thinks worth writing is that since the global financial crisis, the banks have gone easier on their household customers but harder on their business customers.