In the United States, National Public Radio has just announced a revision to their editorial policies. As Jay Rosen notes:
With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.
Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!
Rosen points out that this policy, if implemented (and there’s evidence that it is having an effect) represents a real step forward in journalistic practice.
Pity, therefore, that the ABC, as is typical, wasn’t even able to manage “he said, she said” in critically examining the claims of the Retailers’ Association of massive job losses due to the continued exemption of international online transactions below $1000 from GST and customs duty payments.
7:30 uncritically reports on a “six-month study by Ernst & Young” claiming that “33,000 jobs will vanish because the Federal Government won’t close a GST loophole for imported goods bought online.”
The actual study isn’t available until Friday, making it impossible for anybody other than the 7:30 reporter to examine the assumptions and methodology used. Handy, that – because, as anybody with more than a minute’s experience dealing with these kind of industry-funded economic modeling exercises would know, the results depend critically on those assumptions, and when they’re done by a particular interest group, they are usually carefully selected to push the interest group’s case. If you make different assumptions, you get different answers.
As the reporter, Greg Hoy, would have found out if he’d bothered to read the Productivity Commission report he mentions briefly.
The report refers to modeling done by eBay Australia on the economic effects of lowering the GST threshold, as so desperately sought by the retail sector. It’s presented in their submission to the PC inquiry, and is downloadable right here (submission number 101). And what do we learn from eBay’s modeling? They examine aggregate effects on GDP and employment across the entire economy, not just the retail sector. And, in a nutshell, their model suggests that lowering the GST threshold would lower Australia’s GDP by $20 million, and result in a net loss of 318 jobs spread across the economy. In other words, statistical noise, but if anything the change would be harmful to Australia’s overall well-being.
This is not to claim that eBay’s commissioned modeling is correct and that of the retailers is wrong. I don’t have the expertise to judge; my cynical guess is that eBay has similarly loaded the dice to present a case favouring their interests. However, at least from one aspect, it seems to be more informative than the bits of the retailer’s study – surely employment outcomes across the entire labour market are the most relevant statistic from the point of view of government policy, not what happens in one particular part of it?
In any case, given that I can dig up modeling telling a rather different story with a few minutes effort, why the hell can’t a journalist whose job it is to present this kind of context do so? Even, perhaps, consult a relevant expert to cast a critical eye on both?