When Andrew Leigh and I set out to replicate the US studies of media slant for Australia, we knew that — apart from our own curiosity about the answer — it would be interesting to observe the reaction of others. Our study, using several different measures, found that the Australian media is decidedly unslanted.

Only a couple of outlets were significantly different from the mean but, as a whole, despite what anyone might have thought, the Australian media is pretty darn neutral. If you are a consumer of more extreme Right or Left-wing packaged news, this is a market where the mainstream isn’t serving you. (This is in contrast to the US where there is significant slanting — mostly to the Left — going on; we speculate that this might be a result of a lack of competition in Australian media).

I’ll come to the mainstream reaction in a moment. But let’s look at the blogosphere reaction. Andrew Norton and Sinclair Davidson noted that our public intellectuals were not necessarily biased in the way you might have thought. I was surprised, too, to find that Glyn Davis was mentioned (positively) more in parliament by the Coalition than the Government. But that is not a classification but a fact.

In any case, there were 21 public intellectuals who were significantly mentioned more by one side of politics than the other and it is they that were more “important” in constructing our slant measure than those, like Glyn, who were more evenly mentioned. (By the way, yours truly has been mentioned three times in Parliament the last time I looked — two Coalition and one Democrat. Work that one out.). So it was Les Murray versus Helen Hughes that was important here.

Now Andrew Norton builds on this to argue that our public intellectuals are not partisan in their public work (i.e., they are more discipline based). Funny he should say that when he was expecting to find certain public intellectuals cited more favourably by one side of politics than the other. But that observation isn’t a problem with the study, it is a feature.

The point is to pick people who stand out based on public reputation per se and then use revealed behaviour to classify and match. Again, the issue is that there are some public intellectuals identified as significantly partisan and we want to see how media outlets pay attention to them. In any case, we used multiple measures and they came up with the same basic finding.

Sinclair Davidson notes that our various tests point the same way but finds it unconvincing anyway. He writes:

To the extent that the robustness tests confirm a non-convincing result I suspect there may be a deeper problem with the study.

Yes, that sounds as biased as it is. But Sinclair is introspective:

Alternativily, of course, it may be that I am slanted and don’t appreciate the fine job the ABC have done in promoting the Coalition all these years.

And that is the point and it is one that Peter Costello is going to have to think about before his anti-ABC rants (that said, we didn’t measure intra-Coalitional factional bias). What we are suggesting is that no one appreciated that and someone will have to come up with an alternative test to counter it. We would welcome any such exercise.

But Sinclair also accuses us of “survivorship bias”. This arises when academics study firm profitability and its drivers but fail to taken into account that firms with bad strategies may not survive to be part of our investigation. In this case, Sinclair says we ignore those public intellectuals who didn’t survive (either physically or in the public) until 2005.

True, we only look at “survivors” but we have to also think about what bias this might give rise to. Were Labor public intellectuals so distraught with 10 years of Coalition that they carked it? Or was it the other way? Were they energised by having a Government to critique? There is no theory of bias related to survivorship that I can think of. So that is a weak attack.

Finally, on the media reaction. Let’s look at the headlines. For the Fairfax media:

And for News Ltd

Draw your own conclusions.

Joshua Gans is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School. He writes on these issues at economics.com.au.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey