Industrial relations dominated the political debate during May, and polls show it is likely to be a big issue in the federal election later this year. So, how did Australia’s three major broadsheet newspapers cover this issue during this period?

A content analysis of the front pages of The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for May shows:

  • The Australian ran 22 industrial relations stories on Page 1, compared with 12 by The Age and 10 by the SMH .
  • The Australian gave noticeably greater prominence to these stories than did either of the other papers.
  • The Australian’s coverage was considerably more negative for Labor than that of the other two papers.

The comparisons can be quantified as follows:

Newspaper

No. of stories

Means

Prominence

Negativity*

Mid point 2.50

Mid point
3.00

The Australian

22

2.77

4.14

The Age

12

2.42

3.08

The SMH

10

2.50

3.00

*From Labor perspective

 

The scales used to develop the means were:

Prominence:

Page 1 lead or top of page with substantial picture: 4

Page 1 lead or top of page without substantial picture: 3

Page 1 upper or mid-page, or down-page with substantial display: 2

Page 1 down-page with insubstantial display: 1

Directionality (from Labor side):

Clearly positive: 1

Tending positive: 2

Neutral: 3

Tending negative: 4

Clearly negative: 5

The table shows The Australian above the mid-point for prominence, The Age below it and the SMH right on it. It also shows the Australian well above the mid-point for negativity as seen from the Labor perspective, with The Age slightly above and the SMH again right on the mid-point.

Like all content analyses, this one is subject to the latent biases of the analyst, however much I have tried to be fair-minded. I usually vote Labor at federal elections and will probably do so again in 2007. This obviously could affect the assessment of directionality, which was made on the basis of the headline and the way Labor’s interests were treated in the story.

There were two big negative IR stories for Labor during the month – Julia Gillard’s run-in with big business, and the revelations about evident exploitation of employees on Australian Workplace Agreements by a company associated with Therese Rein, wife of Kevin Rudd.

It isn’t surprising that that’s how they were treated by all the papers: big headlines and lots of negative content.

To see the full list of stories and the scores for each, follow the link to our website below.

 


THE AUSTRALIAN

Date

Headline

Promi-nence score

Directionality from Labor perspective

Direct-ionality score

1 May

Gillard fuels business anger

4

Clearly negative

5

2 May

Labor team turns on Gillard

4

Clearly negative

5

2 May

I’m proud of policies, says Julia

2

Clearly positive

1

3 May

Labor signals IR rethink

4

Clearly negative

5

3 May

A pot hole hit in the drive for victory

2

Clearly negative

5

4 May

Eddington just another voice: Gillard

1

Clearly negative

5

5-6 May

Rudd casts unions adrift

1

Tending positive

2

7 May

NOTHING

8 May

Gillard move likely to enrage unions

1

Clearly negative

5

9 May

NOTHING

10 May

NOTHING

11 May

NOTHING

12-13 May

Rudd must beat unions: Labor guru

3

Clearly negative

5

14 May

Mining chiefs put Rudd on notice

2

Clearly negative

5

15 May

Build costs to rise over Rudd ‘risk’

4

Clearly negative

5

16 May

NOTHING

17 May

Rudd flags deal for miners

4

Clearly positive

2

18 May

Labor’s contract escape clause

1

Neutral

3

19-20 May

NOTHING

21 May

NOTHING

22 May

NOTHING

23 May

NOTHING

24 May

NOTHING

25 May

‘Honest mistake’ puts focus on Rudd family business

4

Clearly negative

5

25 May

Defence of wife a ‘hit’ with women

2

Clearly positive

1

25 May

Motel boss’s hell after Gillard attack

3

Clearly negative

5

26 May

Union boss awaits return of ALP glory days

4

Clearly negative

5

26-27 May

Award conditions bought for 45c and hour

2

Clearly negative

5

28 May

New test for Rudd on wife’s deals

4

Clearly negative

5

28 May

Time to rethink IR policy

3

Tending negative

4

29 May

NOTHING

30 May

NOTHING

31 May

Union fury over Labor crackdown on watchdog

4

Clearly negative

5

31 May

Mighell hit by friendly fire

2

Neutral

3

 

THE AGE

Date

Headline

Promi-nence score

Directionality from Labor perspective

Direct-ionality score

1 May

Rudd’s IR agenda under siege

3

Clearly negative

5

2 May

Gillard at IR coalface

1

Neutral

3

3 May

Bosses told ‘back off’

4

Tending negative

4

3 May

The Labor guru left out in the cold

3

Tending negative

4

4 May

PM retreats on rules for workplace

3

Tending positive

2

5 May

Thousands stranded on AWAs

2

Tending positive

2

6 May

NOTHING

7 May

NOTHING

8 May

NOTHING

9 May

NOTHING

10 May

NOTHING

11 May

NOTHING

12 May

NOTHING

14 May

NOTHING

15 May

NOTHING

16 May

NOTHING

17 May

NOTHING

18 May

NOTHING

19 May

NOTHING

21 May

IR anger keeps Rudd on top

3

Clearly positive

1

22 May

NOTHING

23 May

We bungled on IR: Hockey

3

Clearly positive

1

24 May

NOTHING

25 May

NOTHING

26 May

Rudd’s wife heads for home

1

Tending negative

4

27 May

Rudd’s wife to offload business

3

Neutral

3

28 May

NOTHING

29 May

Rein business tried to engage in shady work practices: claim

2

Clearly negative

5

30 May

NOTHING

31 May

Rudd expels Labor black sheep

1

Neutral

3


 

THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Date

Headline

Promi-nence score

Directionality from Labor perspective

Direct-ionality score

1 May

NOTHING

2 May

ALP fury at Gillard ‘war’ on business

3

Clearly negative

5

3 May

NOTHING

4 May

PM retreats: safety net for battlers

3

Neutral

3

4 May

Another strike

1

Clearly negative

5

5-6 May

NOTHING

7 May

NOTHING

8 May

NOTHING

9 May

NOTHING

10 May

NOTHING

11 May

NOTHING

12-13 May

NOTHING

14 May

Rudd ready to backflip on AWAs

3

Tending negative

4

15 May

NOTHING

16 May

Secret IR poll gives big boost to Rudd

3

Clearly positive

1

17 May

NOTHING

18 May

NOTHING

19-20 May

NOTHING

21 May

Rudd for IR; Howard for economy

3

Neutral

3

22 May

NOTHING

23 May

NOTHING

24 May

NOTHING

25 May

YES indeed, I think we need to talk

4

Tending negative

4

26-27 May

NOTHING

28 May

Push me and it’s the couch, Kev

1

Tending positive

2

29 May

NOTHING

30 May

No work choices – we’re toiling round the clock

3

Tending positive

2

31 May

Rebuff for militant unions

1

Clearly positive

1

Summary

After a three-day flurry over the Gillard matter at the start of the month, The Age moved on to what it called the “PM’s retreat” on WorkChoices, and a story about thousands “stranded on AWAs”. Neither of the other papers put these stories on Page 1.

IR then had only a sporadic presence on Page 1 of The Age and SMH until the Therese Rein story broke on 25 May.

Meanwhile, The Australian found seven IR stories worth Page 1. These included Rudd “casting the unions adrift”, which came across as a positive for Labor; a negative story about how Gillard was likely to “enrage the unions”, and a third had the public opinion pollster Rod Cameron saying, in the words of the headline, that “Rudd must beat the unions”.

The Australian also ran stories about the mining and construction sectors putting pressure on Rudd and about Rudd’s response.

This analysis is based on the content of the front pages of The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald throughout May 2007. The Sunday Age is omitted. This means all the papers are analysed on a six-issue-per-week basis.

Analyst bias obviously could affect the assessment of directionality, which was made on the basis of the headline and the way Labor’s interests were treated in the story.

For example, the Page 1 lead in The Australian of 12-13 May was headlined “Rudd must beat unions: Labor guru”. The story quoted at length the pollster Rod Cameron who, over many years, has conducted polling for the Labor Party. He is the “guru” of the headline. There was a minatory tone throughout the story which the analyst decided created a clearly negative impact on Labor’s interests because it implied that Rudd was not already on top of the unions, might not get on top of them and consequently might lead a government over which unions wielded too much influence.

This is subjective, as much content analysis of this kind inevitably is. The best thing is to acknowledge it and declare where the analyst is coming from.

Analyst bias is unlikely to have had much impact on the more objective data concerning the number of stories or the prominence given to them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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