The Bureau of Statistics downplaying the reality of growing inequality in a press release confirms that good journalism is more important than ever.
By Greg Jericho
In a world of misinformation, spin and lies, good journalism is more vital than ever, and this week revealed just how important it remains for journalists to look past the spin and let the facts and data lead the way.
This week, my colleague Paul Karp broke a rather stunning story that when the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the two-year survey of household incomes and wealth in July it had changed references to wealth inequality in its media release in order to craft a “good media story”.
In effect the ABS media releases sought to downplay the reality of growing inequality.
Such a move saw it ignore the data in its own release and instead push an angle that was more in keeping with the government’s political agenda.
The government has long been seeking to downplay the issue of inequality. This week the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, told the Sydney Institute that “Labor in more recent years explicitly committed itself to the flawed socialist pursuit of equality of outcomes – falsely asserting that Australia had a major and growing inequality problem”.
Except, as the ABS survey showed, this is not a false assertion at all.
And yet despite the survey data showing there had been an increase in inequality, the headline of the media release was “Inequality stable since 2013–14”. Advertisement
The media release did note that “the data published today also showed there was a marginal increase in wealth inequality in 2017–18 and that wealth continues to be less equally distributed between households than income amongst Australians”.
Basically the ABS was unable to keep to the spin throughout its own media release.
Unlike other government departments the ABS is actually independent – it needs to be to ensure the public believes the data is not being tainted by political hands.
There is no evidence at all this has occurred, and yet this smoothing of the message in the media release is not something that does the ABS any credit. The faith in institutions is under attack from all quarters – those institutions should not be giving their critics free kicks.
But the story also highlighted the importance of good journalism.
This survey was unusual in that, as it was a special release with a massive amount of data and nothing that can actually affect markets (given the figures relate to a survey from over a year ago), some journalists (including myself) were given an embargoed copy. This gave us time to write up stories that would give readers a good sense of what was contained in the data.
I must admit when the stories went up as soon as the embargo was lifted I was slightly surprised to see a few media outlets suggest that we are now apparently a nation of millionaires.
I had a bit of a cold chill run down my spine as I worried I had missed an obvious point, because at no stage when I was going through all the spreadsheets did a figure like that jump out at me.
And then I realised why this was the lead – the ABS had also put out another media release – with its own headline: “Average household wealth tops $1 million”.
So I guess it was not surprising that the Australian reported that “Australia a nation of millionaires for the first time in history”, or the AFR went with “Aussie householders are millionaires, on average”. The West Australian ran with “Australian household wealth cracks $1m mark for first time”, stating that “you certainly might not feel like one, you may not even think you know one and you can’t believe it’s possible among all the economic doom and gloom, but the statistics don’t lie – for the first time, Australia is a nation of millionaires”.
Well statistics might not lie but they can be misleading.
When I was looking at the figures in the spreadsheets I didn’t bother with the $1m average figure because it was rather meaningless. The same table that showed the $1m average household wealth figure also showed that only the top 30% of households held this level of wealth, and the median household wealth was $558,900.
Now I might not be the greatest statistician in the world, but I don’t think 30% of households equals “a nation”.
Instead my own report opened with this: “The latest two-year survey of household incomes and wealth from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has revealed that over the past two years inequality has increased. The wealthiest 25% of Australians have increased their income by nearly double that of median income households, while the wealth holdings of the poorest 20% of households has actually declined.”
The reason is I had looked at the data and not bothered to even read the media releases.
I usually don’t read them. For me the data is the story and I am more than capable of finding it without a press officer trying to lead me to it.
Sometimes I’ll have a look after I have written my story just to check I have not missed an obvious point.
And this is where the good reporting comes to the fore.
In my opinion we actually have some excellent economics reporters in this country. We are a bit of a nerdy club – those few people in press rooms who like numbers and even know how to find our way around an Excel spreadsheet.
The household income and wealth report saw the best journalists rise to the occasion.
I like to think my own work was also good, (I certainly had more graphs than anyone else!)
But the whole affair highlights the importance of good journalism at a time when the plethora of news and noise can lead to an easy regurgitation of media releases and a comment from officials or ministers who merely confirm what they want you to think and report.
For me the data and the facts are always the story, and the news this week only confirms that you should put your trust in journalists and media organisations who think the same.
• Greg Jericho writes on economics for Guardian Australia
First published at the Guardian Australia – Sunday 1 September 2019. See: