How the media gets things wrong. A mea culpa

The other day, I encountered a report from ABC’s Radio National that just didn’t look right to me.

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That claim, that expense entitlements are costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars a year? I was pretty sure that wasn’t strictly accurate.

I’d looked into this myself. For an article for Crikey, back in 2015.

Here’s the headline on that article. See if you can spot the problem.

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That’s right. My article seems to be making the exact same claim as the Radio National piece.

I remember writing the article. I knew I had some interesting information – that the total cost of running all our MPs was $500 million a year, and that was a substantial multiple of their salary costs. The implication was that there was some fat in the system.

I didn’t know exactly what share of the $500 million was “entitlements” and what was other things, because the categories are partly bundled together. I didn’t claim all the $500 million was for entitlements. It definitely includes some things most people wouldn’t deem “entitlements”, notably MP salaries. I guess I could have been a lot more explicit on that fact.

Here’s what I wrote.

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Whatever interpretation readers might be left with after reading, I don’t know, but the headline above was put on the article. The headline turned out to be very powerful online and the piece was widely shared.

Including by this guy.

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(If you don’t recognise Paul Barry, he is the anchor of an Australian TV show called Media Watch, dedicated to keeping the media on the straight and narrow.)

The factlet embodied in the headline has apparently since become accepted truth. (Even though it isn’t strictly speaking, a fact). I’m pretty sure this is what the Radio National reporter drew on for the report above, although perhaps indirectly, as it seems to have been repeated in various places since.

I feel guilty. I actually remember looking at the headline at the time, and thinking¬† “that’s not quite right.” But I did not ask for the headline to be altered, using the bad faith justification of “people will read the article and know the truth, rather than relying on the headline.”

I suspect I’m not alone in having a slightly guilty feeling about some of the headlines that have accompanied some of my stories. In the modern environment, headlines play a role far greater than simply summarising the content, and that creates a tension.

I’ve sent an email to my pals at Crikey asking if we can get the headline changed. It’s obviously pretty late for that, but it might make me feel slightly better at least.