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.


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.


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.




Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 5.28.05 PM.png

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.


(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.

Published by


Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

19 thoughts on “How the media gets things wrong. A mea culpa”

  1. Misleading headlines is one of my biggest bugbears. I hate them. Especially in this day and age of clickbait. I’ve noticed them a lot more in areas where I have expertise or an interest, and actually read the articles, and can understand how misleading the headline is, especially when people quote it at me. Nit sure what can be done about it, except hope the media has some kind of ethics/morals like you do

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Jason. Regular reader and follower. If you want to throw the cat among the proverbial re truth in media and advertising, take a look at the likes of Open Agent and Local Agent Finder. My wife is the top agent in Canning Vale WA and has a number of articles in her blog that these guys hate. It’s not what they say in their advertising, it’s what they don’t tell the public. You can check out her blog article here: (we even had the ceo of local agent finder contact us to see if we would take the article down as it sits top of google) How Fair Trading hasn’t closed these frauds down is a mystery.


    1. “Top agents get referrals from previous happy customers and their reputations, and refuse to deal with parasite organizations that wants to take 20% of their commission. After all, they lose money and many consider the use of such organisations damages their reputation.”

      My favorite part. Like a leech and a tick going at it.


      1. Ahhhh….. cheap shots from a burgeoning free thinker that has blindly swallowed generalized misconceptions and regurgitates the banal. I would have thought precocious Bohemians like yourself would have made the effort to garner an independent view. Your opinion of those in the industry is arbitrary, but the deception being perpetrated here is not. If that is extent of your understanding of this article, may I suggest attending a remedial course: possibly Comprehension 101? Or would you prefer to be graded on your current abilities? A percentage score perhaps??

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wrong again. Caveat emptor inherent to a trading mart like Craigslist is obvious to all but the dullest of individuals. Open Agent’s referral concept claims complete transparency, yet pushes via a multi million dollar advertising budget, not misinformation per se, but partial information, leading the consumer into believing they are making a fully informed decision.


      3. What is wrong with you? I was nice because I like Jason’s blog.

        First go look up leeches and ticks…you might regret your “cheap shots” and verbose insult. You might also understand the joke instead of blindly swallowing your generalized misconceptions, I’m NOT surprised a smug prick like yourself missed it by jumping to arbitrary opinions about these creatures….may I suggest attending a remedial course.

        Dating ON craigslist not craigslist…Comprehension 101?

        Daters on craigslist claim complete transparency, yet pushes via craigslist not misinformation per se, but partial information, leading the poor girl/guy into believing they are making a fully informed decision. (and likely robbed)

        The only thing you have said of merit was the snipe about percentages ( I laughed ). I’m sorry you are so dull, what is the opposite of a precocious Bohemian? A middle-aged wasp that is so detached they don’t belong on the internet?

        I am really sorry Jason…but fuck this person,


      4. hy do you think I’m middle aged? I’m doing up a 1963 jaguar atm, hence the username. I’m approaching middle age, but I’m not there yet. That was just hurtful.


      5. Why do you think I’m middle aged? I’m doing up a 1963 jaguar atm, hence the username. I’m approaching middle age, but I’m not there yet. That was just hurtful.

        My verbose response was a direct affront to witty remark. and very tongue in cheek. Sorry. It gets lost on some.
        Let’s strip the syllables away shall we. (syllables…. that was 3…. hope that wasn’t overdoing it :P )
        “People using Craigslist for dating claim complete transparency”
        Really? You actually typed that with a straight face? Craigslist ?? Oh, and your quip re “Like a leech and a tick going at it” isn’t some innuendo laden masterpiece, it’s transparent and typical. Sorry mate, but if that’s where you’re coming from, if you’re not writing this with the help of a carer in a sheltered workshop I’d be flawed.

        Am I smug because I know I’m right? Well I am right. I’ve been on the coal face pushing the truth about these guys for 5 years. People get taken for a ride using these services and never know the amount of money it costs them. It’s a self perpetuating cycle of ignorance. Am I passionate about it? Absolutely. When OpenAgent started they didn’t even have the fees they charged agents available on their site. To the public they were seen as a free service. That changed when the blog in the link above was published.

        Real estate agents are typecast as mustache twirling villains. Reality is, studies have shown the vast majority of people are very happy with their agent, and you are far more likely to be ripped off by trades people.

        Here’s a generalization for you (sorry, lots of syllables). The majority of people not in the real estate industry will take the likes of Open Agent and Local Agent Finder on face value from their multi million dollar advertising campaign, sign up, and never even realize the list of agents they were given was highly likely not to contain the best agents in the area….. and that they’ll likely pay for the privilege. That’s right, they can end up paying for a list of substandard agents, and the flow on effect can be sales outcomes costing the seller tens of thousands.

        So please excuse me if I get my “middle aged” *sniff* feathers ruffled when an ignorant outsider tries to tar the mostly hard working agent and the parasitic referral organisations with the same brush. You’re exacerbating a stereotype, and playing directly into Open Agent’s hands.


      6. You use of language exposes your age, not your username. But I respect my elders so I will protect your precious sensibilities and use my own field to explain the joke and your misguided little spat.

        Leeches are amazing creatures, humans have been using them (likely before recorded history) for….blood filtration. I am the leech, I can filter your blood, I am the guy that comes to fix your technology machine if you had actually tried to google leeches and ticks, you give me money. I provide you with an efficiency that you were incapable of achieving otherwise, win-win. The tick latches onto you and bleeds you dry, no symbiotic behaviour. The tick would be the funny Asian guy that calls you on the phone and says your computer is broken, and needs access to it because…”I’m from Microsoft”, robbing you blind.

        Why are leeches perceived so badly by the likes of you? Other than the delusion of grandeur granted to you by our maturing economy of course. Could it be that a once useful and even respected creature became worthless over time thanks to the development of medical science? Does your ill will express the nature of the leech or a more sinister aspect of human utilitarianism and how does that end for you or me as the leech? Ask the people that have already been automated or maybe you don’t need to given your admission about the realtor typecast.

        You are outraged at the idea of being a blood sucker yet you are respected so long as you are useful. If any offense could be taken by someone that would seek to preserve themselves over progress, It would be to join the antiquated leech. I’ll just leave this here…

        I suppose you are more depressed than annoyed but don’t worry you will retire soon. Just make sure your kids become programmers, far better to squish the bugs than to be one…and you get many many bloods…Atleast 6.

        Also you have never used craigslist have you? HAHA. Go have a look but remember some things cannot be unseen.

        TL DR:
        Progress is good but change is bad,
        Unfortunately this made a realtor sad.
        Leeches are worms, ticks arachnids.
        This post was a metaphorical fact kit.


    2. I follow energy, and no, I am not an engineer (but some of my best friends…etc ) and with a modicum of university maths it’s not just a little shocking to see what the media breathlessly and collectively passes off as “news” and “analysis” in this field.

      Whenever I see that some “economist” has made/repeated the claim that ” renewables are cheaper than coal” I shudder. Inside the echo-chamber, no one can you scream!

      Typical howlers abound: articles about battery storage always use MW instead of MWh, vast areas of solar panels “power x number of homes” but never own up to a capacity factor below 20%, or explain the “duck curve” (yes, it’s a thing, it’s real, and it is a serious problem in grid management).

      What the media has done is dumb down a very complex area into PR talking points, and no wonder the public is confused, or is convinced that unicorns and rainbows will power their hungry energy needs into a clean utopia tomorrow…or by 2050, or by…(insert your favourite decade).

      Crap headline of this week: “Dutch trains 100% powered by wind”

      Flatulence like that does not write itself you know!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jason great stuff as usual. More, more, more!

    I’d really like to hear your opinion on how you feel about using percentages in public and how they are represented in the media, particularly with growth. I personally don’t see it all as malevolent, likely just misapprehension on the media’s part because of how the sources provide information they are experts in and have grounded understandings of the baselines. How does this influence public decision making?

    Look at Sussan Ley’s resignation…YAY! How much traction would this story gain in public if it was “Senator spends 0.01% of average parliamentarians expenses on holiday with family over several weekends to Broome” in the case of Corrman?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More context is always good! Putting the spend in percentage terms would help give that context. It’s not the only relevant context though.


      1. Does it give context without knowing the numbers? It could be 1% of 1000 or 1000000. It seems much more effective at framing the conversation as in the travel expense example? It swings the other way using large numbers because of our personal reference points.

        Unless you deal with the numbers on a daily basis a lot of our modern econmics is far beyond the a layman. One billion becomes difficult for the mind to rationalise, almost as difficult as growth represented through a percentage. Go test it in anyone that isn’t a numberphile, ask them to represent 3% growth…and you often get a straight line.

        Also I’m sorry I upset one of your other readers. I often forget that jokes are offensive now. Thank God I didn’t try to sell some lamb.


      2. I see what you’re saying. That the use of percentages obscures things. I guess it can and I agree that a big problem in journalism (in all writing and in fact in all communication really) is assuming the person you’re informing knows something about the topic already.

        I’ve been reading a great book by a guy called Steven Pinker. He cites a heap of studies showing just how prevalent is the assumption that the reader knows a bit already about what you’re talking about. More often they don’t.

        If I go back to the earliest posts in this blog, I’m horrified by how I set off writing things without making some of the basic facts and context clear. I make a more concerted effort these days to be clear (without being patonising.)


  4. like it

    On Mon, Jan 16, 2017 at 11:27 AM, Thomas the Think Engine wrote:

    > thomasthethinkengine posted: “The other day, I encountered a report from > ABC’s Radio National that just didn’t look right to me. 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'” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ben. Take comfort.
      In your mind you will always win. There is no arguing with delusion.
      Props for the most irrelevant rant ever created.
      Oh…. fyi kiddo…… leeches as blood filters??? really???
      So you don’t understand what a filter does?
      Once again, get your carer to help you put your big words together…… logic just ain’t your thing.
      Glad to see you got something from your HECS debt.

      Antiquated leech implies they had a use. Medically they never did, it was simply a medical misunderstanding of the time, Their use today is reserved for procedures only seen in modern medicine, so you’ve got your facts completely ass about….. as expected.
      Real estate agents provide a real, value added service. All your doing is demonstrating your ignorance on this matter and trying to deflect your inability to argue yourself out of the hole which you so willfully created.

      Try selling and negotiating your own home sale: deal with the stresses, the low ball offers, rude and indifferent people, unrealistic expectation, unwillingness to understand the market, organizing compatible settlement, finance, FERB, insurance, prior possesion etc etc.

      As I said before, your commenting on something you might have read about, but never had to get your hands dirty on. Life experience on the matter for you = zippo….. but of course, you still consider yourself an expert on the matter, and yay for the interweb, you get to have your say.

      Well, Congrats….. demonstrated beyond doubt exactly what you are.
      You’re the living incarnation of Good Will Hunting: The sad mans version.

      Tip: Ignorance and arrogance are an enlightening combination.
      By all means…. keep ranting….. .
      You’ve moved from swearing hillbilly to semi literate troglodyte, but try and lay off the crack pipe and get some help before you respond, and please, do yourself a favor and don’t give opinions on what you simply don’t understand.

      cya kid


      1. Poor parwanconsultants.

        I actually have no problem admitting I am wrong. You are right, filtration was a bad term to use. It doesn’t change anything else we have been discussing since you were triggered. FYI They have safe spaces for people like you now.

        So while you are there perhaps you might ponder why someone that became offended at a typecast is so eager to use them as insults? The challenged, drug abuse, rural living, Matt Damon…lol.

        You see yourself as valuable, I see you as an inefficiency that can be corrected with automation over time. I’m sorry that you cannot accept opposition but it doesn’t bother me, the market knows best.

        Best wishes,
        Your fav kiddo.


  5. Wont this jack up inflation champ? According to you we need to spend more, not less so lets fill up that trough so the politicans can really get stuck in, wheeee money for everybody!


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s