Spinning Wheel

A health warning to mainstream media consumers: When a news story starts with the words “is expected to”, activate the BS detector. When that story involves forecasts about economic statistics, shift detector to warp speed.

So it was that Aunty ABC woke me at 6am with the sombre news that Australia’s unemployment rate was “expected to have jumped” in April – all the way from 5.2 to 5.3 per cent. Oh, the humanity.

My own inbuilt detector flashed red on hearing  this headline. I spent 15 years reporting economic statistics and I have seen how the sausages are made. In fact, every economic journalist worth his or her salt knows the labour force report is a lottery and that a blindfolded chimp tossing darts would be more accurate than the legions of market economists in calling the number.

But what bugged me about ‘Aunty’s’ reporting wasn’t just the lack of knowledge of the quirks of monthly statistics. It was its apparent glee, or at least enthusiasm, in anticipating ‘more bad news for the economy’. This was the second lead item on a morning bulletin on a day when there was much more important news to report on.

Sure enough, when the numbers hit the dealers’ screens at 1130 eastern time, they didn’t fit the story of the wheels falling off the economy. Instead, unemployment had fallen from 5.2 to 4.9 per cent, although we were now told by the ABC that while a 0.1 percentage point rise was a “jump”, a 0.3 percentage point decline was a “slight fall”.

Not only that, but the chosen lead on the story was “Unemployment Drops as Job Seekers Give Up”.  This was based on a 0.1 percentage point decline in the participation rate – which measures the proportion of the eligible workforce either in work or looking for work. The bureau’s own website warns that these numbers are subject to sampling error. All it can say is that there is a 95% chance that the participation rate change is somewhere between -0.5 ppts to +0.3 ppts.

In any case, lots of factors can affect workforce participation. People can leave the labour force to go back to full-time study. Women can leave work to have and raise children; men to take over as full-time carers. And, of course, people can give up looking for work.

But to draw the conclusion that a 0.3 percentage point decline in unemployment over one month was entirely due to people throwing in the towel in the search for work is deluded at best and dishonest at worst. Month-to-month data is just NOISE and for the ABC to draw that negative inference based on very little at all raises questions about the integrity of its news service or at least the competence of its journalists.

This is particularly so when they had been leading all morning with the suggestion that an even smaller rise in unemployment would be a sign of economic weakness.

Even more incredibly, their own story quoted two bank economists as saying the numbers were actually positive. Yet the broadcaster’s lead and the headline said the opposite.  And this was despite a contrary response from the financial markets, which took the numbers as a positive signal for the economy – the sharemarket rallied, bonds sold off and the  Australian dollar moved higher on the expectation the data reduced the chance of a rate cut. If the jobs data was giving a false signal, as the ABC was suggesting, why would we see that market response??

Then, a glutton for punishment, I turned on the radio driving home from work at 6pm only to hear ABC radio run this headline: “Unemployment IS EXPECTED to rise again after falling to a 12-month low in April.” Expected to!  Who says? The same ones predicting it would rise last month? Hadn’t they learned their lesson? Why not just run the news straight and tell people what happened today without speculating on some imagined future event?

True to its very good reputation, the financial wire service Bloomberg managed  it: “Australia’s unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped to a one-year low in April as payrolls rose for a second straight month, driving the local currency higher and reducing bets on interest rate cuts next month.” No arguments there. That’s what happened. It’s not really that hard to tell it straight.

So why can’t the ABC do it? Why does it find it so hard to report news without putting an anti-government, or at least a glass-half-empty,  spin on it? And why is every half-arsed line cranked out by the Opposition’s media machine automatically deemed to be news? If you check with the OECD, Australia’s unemployment rate is less than half that of the Euro zone, and is at least three percentage points below the jobless rates of the US, the UK and Canada. So how is a 4.9% unemployment result in a world still struggling to emerge from the biggest downturn since the 1930s a bad thing?

My hunch is that the paranoia about ‘balance’ within the public broadcaster has reached the point where just reporting the facts is no longer enough. What is required is the fabled “truthiness”. One must not seek to simply portray economic news as “good” – or even as neutral – for fear that the nitpicking culture warriors who resent taxpayers money being spent on  public broadcasting accuse them of bias. So ABC journos overcompensate by trying to spin straightforward facts to appease their imagined enemies. (Either that or they’re auditioning for jobs at News Ltd).

Of course, you can imagine the ABC’s response to all this. They’ll issue their standard line that half their correspondence is from people accusing them of being dupes of the conservatives and the other from Tories accusing them of being a nest of leftists. And that must mean, they will inevitably say, that they’ve got ‘the balance’ right. One for him, one for her, stitch, stitch, purl like some 19th century knitting mantra.

My response is those arguments are just a cute way of deflecting criticism of what in essence is lousy journalism. So ABC, stop the spin, stop telling us what “is expected” to happen and just tell us what has happened. There is enough heavily spun news out there without you cranking it out as well. And trying bringing some global perspective to your reporting. Otherwise, we may as well sell you to Murdoch and be done with you.

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26 thoughts on “Spinning Wheel

  1. What should but doesn't amaze me is how airily predictors of economic events carry on with their next “prediction” when they've got the last n of them so clearly wrong.

    But you're right of course – they should report on news and leave predictions to the experts on Psychic TV.

  2. #TheirABC seems to do this every month. They will find some economists or “experts” who they can get on the record as predicting a rise in the unemployment. Then they rush to air and online with the headline screaming “Unemployment tipped to rise!”

    Then, sure enough, nine times out of ten, when the actual figures come in, TheirABC's entrail readers are proven to have not been accurate.

    It would appear pointless, to go to the trouble of calling in experts to make a prediction, only to have said prediction scuttled almost right away by the official announcement of actual results. So why the monthly ritual? Given the ABC's increasingly-acknowledged bias against the Labor government, one can only assume #TheirABC wants to get the words “UNEMPLOYMENT” and “RISE” together in headlines as frequently as possible. Who gives a stuff if unemployment usuallly does not in fact rise as “predicted”: TheirABC has done the damage to Labor, working on the principle that most people do not read or listen beyond the headline, so they'll have got the impression of rising unemployment in any case.

    And another thing. How does the prediction of experts qualify as “news”? At the prediction stage, when it's about the foreshadowing, nothing has actually happened, so by definition it is NOT NEWS.

    So again, why use the news service of the national broadcaster to run what is, by definition, non-news every month? To get that impression of “rising” “unemployment” into people's heads!

    Cuppa

  3. Unfortunately I fear that you attribute nobler motives to the ABC than are warranted.

    The stacking of the ABC Board by Howard enabled the employment of managers and 'reporters' that have shown time and again appalling anti-ALP bias and a standard of performance way below the professional level traditional provided by the ABC.

  4. The monthly employment stats are based upon sampling, like opinion polls. they are subject to sampling error and will jump around by small amounts from month to month. It's the long term trend that is important. Looking at the ABS site, it seems to me that all you can say is that the unemployment and participation rates have been steady for the past 13 months, at about 5% and 65% respectively.

    It looks like sloppy reporting by the ABC. They decided how to report the story and spun the numbers to fit. I expect this from the Daily Telegraph, but I thought the ABC was better than this.

  5. The demise of abc news can be directed back to mark Scott he is just reprising what he did at Fairfax. He talks a good game that bloke but this liberal party hack knows what he is doing. He took all the kick out of Fairfax ignored who the readers were scoffed at ideas of turning the age into the guardian on the Yarra when it was probably exactly what wad needed. He has abc just where he wants it the radio arm of news ltd.

  6. I think I may have said this before but you know the ABC radar is broken when it starts radio news bulletins with “the leader of the opposition has attacked the government …”

    Hello? It would be news if he didn't. I suspect that you are right that ABC staff are so afraid of accusations of bias that they act this way rather than doing out of a love for the Tories. When the choice is conspiracy or stuff up go for stuff up.

    Slightly off topic, I have long been fascinated by the ABC's obsession with economic news. Every radio bulleting gives us the US dollar conversion as if its ups and downs were the key to the mystery of life. If you are out there listening Mr ABC, in my office NO One talks abt the US dollar while they are in the kitchen making a cup of tea. It is the footy, stupid!

  7. Once I would have fought tooth and nail for the ABC. The news seemed straight without opinion and commentary. Now that is gone and cannot be restored while Mark Scott is running it. Just reappointed for another 5 years. I could go on with endless examples of its now tabloid, biased reporting, but people who watch, listen and read are already aware of them. No, I don't believe it is about “balance” either, it is just straight unadulterated bias.

    I feel deeply saddened at the loss of what was once a highly regarded institution in the field of journalism. The government should now just sell it off, although I realise that was the master plan when Howard stacked the board and installed Scott. Sounds like giving up, but really, what is the point in keeping it in its current state as a mere copy of the commercials?

  8. Mr Rabbit's point abt how the employment stats are calculated is well made. I got caught up in the ABS survey last year and once a month someone would ring me and ask me if I went to work the previous week, how many hours, had I had a sickie etc. Lord only knows how they extrapolate those answers into finding out what the employment figures is … bit like Newspoll I suppose.

  9. It's possible that there are reporters at the ABC, but there's little evidence of it. There're cooking show personalities (Crabb au Grattan anyone?), political commentators who see themselves as influencing politics (“Insiders”) and magazine show compilers (Tony Jones, Frangga Kelly) who intersperse preferred pandering pundits (pandits?) with interviews that typically ambush rather than elucidate.
    John Clark & Brian Dawe might make the grade, though.

    It's a bit sad when we have to rely on comedians for cut-through reporting.

  10. Bugger it. The ABC should go back to being an alleged 'pro-Labor' mouthpiece. At least then the quality of its journalism might improve. After all, the Coalition has plenty of other media outlets supporting its senseless drivel.

  11. All this and still people complain of a pro labor bias in the ABC

    It shows they do not even pretend to listen to the facts

    They are convinced by whoever should the slogans the loudest and longest

  12. The ABC stopped being a serious broadcaster during the Howard years. Their current affairs reporting is pathetic nowadays, and their drama and comedy seems to consist of foreign reruns. ABC management has been cowed by endless criticism from conservatives. Any reporting favourable to Labor is treated as outrageous bias while the opposite is regarded as fair comment. They are on a hiding to nothing, as their conservative critics will never forgive them for being government owned. If the ABC broadcast Coalition propaganda 24 hours a day, the idiot factor in the bush and burbs would still regard them as trying to bring about a communist dictatorship.

    There used to be a significant difference in the quality of journalism between the ABC and the commercial channels. There isn’t anymore.

  13. Agreed John J. I think their recent (outside-produced) 'reality show' documentary on climate change vividly demonstrated how cowed they are. This was 'he said-she said' frightened-of-saying-anything journalism at its most beige. They've been got to, no doubt.

  14. The other day I listened to Obama give his interview regarding his belief in gay marriage only to then hear two insufferably smug little Australia girl reporters on the ABC decide to tell us what he really meant.

    I reckon the most powerful man on earth with the great gift or oratory can tell us what he thinks without the prattling monkeys joining in.

    The ABC in recent years takes all their leads from Murdoch media – too lazy to do their own work.

  15. Pissing off various demographics in equal measure isn't a sign of success, it's a sign of deterioration.

    In related measures, they have reduced current affairs to panel-based talkfests, which provide a paltform for party political talking points, and nothing new is said or learned

    ABC, shmayBC.

  16. In the 70's when I was at Uni TDT was the best new/current affairs show going. The current crop are worst than tabloid newspapers and I have to admitt I don't watch any of them anymore. By the way, in the 70's 5% unemployment was considered as full employment due to the changes that occure all the time in employment. Why do people seem to think that 0% is the aim, one that can never be achieved.

  17. I see I'm not alone in having stopped relying on the ABC for quality information.

    I guess I should be glad that it wasn't me going crazy, but it's all a bit too sad for that.

  18. Phil – up until about 1974, there actually was full employment. The government used to get nervous when unemployment climbed towards 2%. This all changed permanently in the wak of the first oil shock when unemployment climbed to levels last seen before WW2. At first it was blamed on Whitlam, but the change was really an outworking of a breakdown in a post war consensus about how to run the economy, which included high levels of protection. For better or worse, we can't go back to that now, and 4 to 5% seems to represent a floor to unemployment. It would be good if we could run an economy without pushing out the bottom 5%.

  19. ABC as an affiliate of News Ltd – never, however I did see the following message at the bottom of the screen on ABC 24 News:

    “News Ltd boss praises Murdoch as a visionary leader”.

  20. My reading of the latest developments at the ABC are that they have gone past political bias and are now moving on to extreme incompetence.

    The Federal government still insists that the media are not to blame (see Mark Butler's stupid remarks on ABC Capital Hill program).

  21. I think the ABC do some really good reporting and commentary, even if this example highlights the worst. As much as spin disengages and frustrates us all, people want opinion as well as news reporting.

  22. Yes I saw that “crap ” too. The ABC and New Ltd. is Australia's version of the Volkischer Beobachter, without a doubt. The propaganda arm of the Noalition. They are both screwing democracy in our country. Shame on them.

  23. It's a cunning plot. When Abbott gets in no one will be able to afford a newspaper. The ABC will once again be top news dog.

    Bye, Bye News Ltd

  24. When Mr Abbott gets in News Limited will reign supreme. After all,there's a symbiotic relationship between the Coalition and News Limited. The former gives the latter the political and economic environment that News Limited demands and News Limited through its various publications will do its best to ensure, through distortion, omission and outright misrepresentation that the Coalition retains power.

    The ABC was cowered and its board stacked under Howard and the effects are still working their way through the system. When Abbott gets into power in a year or so the ABC will be further emasculated and if he gets a second term the ABC will be sold off. We won't be waving Bye Bye News Limited in this country any time soon.

  25. Hi Mr Rabbit, you recollection maybe correct, I am a scientist not an economist, however I think it will be difficult to get below 5% as I think there is a large pool of pooly educated people and there isn't really that many jobs for the unskilled in the modern workforce.

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