The Australian National Audit Office’s report on the government’s Building the Education Revolution was released this morning [PDF here]. Naturally, journos started digging into it to see what the report showed, and news outlets tried to get stories online as quickly as possible. But it’s interesting to see the trends that come through in the reporting of this kind of thing – especially the drive to find a negative angle, I suspect because that’s what makes for a juicy story.

Crikey has Bernard Keane’s analysis here; Possum also has commentary. Read those for a run-down of what the report says. In essence, it seems the BER program has come up clean – for a program that was rolled out with the dual purposes of providing economic stimulus and enhancing education infrastructure, it seems to have worked as intended.

The Australian first published its story at 10:22am with a brief and relatively positive snippet, as evidenced by this headline (which I only managed to preserve via Google News):

ber audit - Google News_1273025323175

In the hours after that, the report was obviously digested in more detail and all of the remotely negative parts highlighted, so the article now looks like this:

BER audit finds problem but ‘value for money’ of individual projects outside scope

AN audit of the Rudd Government’s $16 billion school building program has identified major difficulties including projects being behind schedule, complaints about a “one-size-fits-all” approach and doubts over the extent of jobs the scheme has created.

The report, released this morning, was critical of the government’s planning and implementation of the scheme.

And it noted that it was unable to address widespread complaints about value for money in individual projects because of its limited terms of reference.

It also criticised some of the administrative arrangements as unduly complicated and time consuming, noting that 15 per cent of projects funded in the first round were behind schedule.

The report also questioned the reasons for a decision last year to boost the funding of the projects by $1.9 billion.

The positive elements of the original story are buried below that introduction. And The Australian made sure they linked the audit’s criticisms to their own barrage of attacks on the scheme.

But The Australian was far from alone. The ABC web site’s first brief report chose to open their first brief report with this:

Audit slams Rudd- Google News_1273031462427

Again, they have updated their story – and to their credit, they at least acknowledge the audit’s comments about the apparent benefits of the scheme in their third paragraph, but they continue to push the same line about criticism of monitoring. As Possum notes (with help from his commenters), this is just poor reporting.

And Fairfax is on board with it as well. The SMH opened its early reporting by telling us what the Opposition thinks the report says – can you guess? By early afternoon, they were ready to say the report “slams” the government.

It seems to me that the media’s approach to the release of this sort of report is a recipe for disaster. First, everyone’s racing to be first with their story online – hence the brief stories that later effectively disappear. Second, in the rush to process the information in this report, the focus is on what it said that can be counted as negative. Apart from being misinterpreted, what’s lost in that approach is the fact that this report came about because the Opposition and certain parts of the media claimed this was, more or less, a clusterfuck of a scheme. Any balanced reading of the audit shows these claims aren’t substantiated, but instead of putting these findings in the context of claims and expectations about what it would show, we’re only told that it wasn’t 100% positive for the government. And third, some outlets seem keen to shape the current reporting in a way that vindicates their earlier editorially-driven stance against this scheme.

The whole thing just seems shoddy, and I don’t see how the public – who won’t go reading the report, and who will only read the snippets and hear the soundbites – get anything resembling the truth out of this type of “reporting”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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