Saturday, 19 December 2009

Media coverage of economic issues in New Zealand

In a recent article, Media's dimissal of task force premature, in the Otago Daily Times on the 18 December 2009 (or here or here), Roger Kerr makes a couple of important points when he says,
Public understanding about what constitutes good economic policy will ultimately dictate the economic performance of New Zealand.
and when he writes,
The mainstream media have a key role in shaping public understanding (although the blogosphere is becoming increasingly important).
In passing, with regard to the New Zealand economics orientated blogsphere, let me recommend, Offsetting Behaviour, TVHE, Progressive Turmoil, Defective Equilibrium, Not PC, Brad Taylor's Blog and BK Drinkwater. Not that I always agree with them, but at least there is a reasonable, rational, informed standard of debate, something missing in much of the traditional media.

Kerr is right when he says that the media has an important role to play in shaping public understanding of economic policy. The problem is that the aforesaid media understand little about economics and thus are of limited use in informing public debate. Kerr asks, with regard to the 2025 report,
How well did journalists communicate the 2025 Taskforce report to the public?
and answers not too well. Some of the examples of mainstream reporting he gives are,
Some seemed not to have read it at all, or at least taken it in. For example, Martin van Beynen of the Christchurch Press simply asserted that Australia was rich because of minerals, even though the Taskforce devoted 10 paragraphs to debunking this myth.
Others dismissed the 2025 goal as just an ACT idea.

But before the 2008 election prime minister John Key had this to say: "I came into politics because I believed New Zealand was underperforming economically as a country. I don't think it's good enough that so many New Zealanders feel forced to leave our country each year to seek higher wages in Australia ... You have my personal commitment that if I am elected prime minister in eight days' time I will work tirelessly over the next three years to deliver the stronger economic future our country deserves."
Brian Fallow of the Herald saw the Taskforce as "rooted in 1980s thinking" - Helen Clark's so-called "failed policies of the past", even though she didn't fundamentally change any of them.
Consider also the recent coverage by the traditional media of the BERL report on alcohol or the coverage of the Regulatory Responsibility Taskforce report. In both cases, what coverage there was didn't rise to any great heights.

Kerr then gets to the heart of the problem,
Most journalists don't have strong economic expertise, but they can consult those who do. If, for example, they had spoken to recipients of the NZIER awards for public policy, they would have found that the vast majority approved the Taskforce's report.
If they had bothered to ask most economists I'm sure they would have found support of much of the Taskforces's recommendations.

Kerr concludes from his discussion that
[i]t is easy to get depressed about economic journalism in New Zealand, particularly in contrast to high quality and less sycophantic writing in Australia.
And not just Australia. When you look at economic journalism in most parts of the world you see a much higher standard than in New Zealand. Where are New Zealand's Sir Samuel Brittan, Martin Wolf, Tim Harford, George Will or David Warsh? And who could possibly qualify as New Zealand's Frederic Bastiat or Henry Hazlitt? Do any of the journalists in New Zealand who write on economic issues have an economics background? Also a common feature of overseas newspapers is regular opinion pieces from leading economists. The likes of Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, Russ Roberts, Don Boudreaux, Edward Glaeser, Thomas Sowell, John Taylor and Greg Mankiw are just some of the (semi)regular contributors to the traditional media overseas. Too little of this is seen here. Brian Easton writes in The Listener, Roger Kerr writes regular pieces for a number of papers, Eric Crampton and Stephen Hickson do the odd article for The Press, but I don't know of much beyond this.

But I would argue the main problem with the traditional media's coverage of economic issues is the point Kerr makes about the lack of journalists with any genuine economic expertise, knowledge or understanding. Serious debate is unlikely given that those helping to frame the debate don't understand the issues. If we are to fix this problem then it must come to pass that those training journalists actively seek out trainees with a serious economics background and the media companies pay them enough to make economic journalism a worthwhile career.

There is, I guess, at least one counterargument to my position, namely, that the media simply panders to its audience and thus the lack of good economics coverage reflects the fact that people are not interested in economic policy debate, no matter how important it may be. Depressing, but there may be something to it.


V said...

Completely agree, journalists in NZ have little economic understanding and are arguably NZ's #1 believers in the free lunch.
Exhibit A is how by how they react to getting a 'free' trip anywhere.

Mark Hubbard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Hubbard said...

Good piece. I think the real problem with the MSM is, for whatever reason, the members within it seem to have a) lost an inquiring mind (could be just laziness), and b) are guided by the political agenda of the Left.

This post, and my above two points, apply just as much to the global warming debate (change 'economic expertise' for scientific expertise), as for the economic debate.

I also agree with you (or was it Kerr) that the blogisphere is becoming an important counter-balance to the MSM.