journalism media trust in media tax cut coverage

Major media outlets’ coverage of the government’s tax cut package focused heavily on race-calling and spruiking the benefits of the package ahead of examining the fiscal and social impacts of the package, an analysis by Crikey shows.

We examined the coverage of the tax cuts package before and after the election in the Nine newspapers, the ABC and The Australian, culminating in headlines about the government’s “triumph” in securing Senate passage of the cuts first announced in the April budget.

Out of 227 print and online pieces dealing with the tax cuts, just 25 provided any kind of fiscal and equity analysis of the package, which will fundamentally alter the progressive nature of Australia’s income tax system when Stage 3 of the package commences in 2024. That included six articles purporting to demonstrate that the benefits of the package would primarily go to middle-income earners rather than high-income earners, or that it would not affect the progressivity of the income tax system.

However, when it came to the minutiae of politicking around the passage of the package, readers were overwhelmed with coverage. There were 48 articles on the position of minor parties, deals, or the status of negotiations between the government and crossbenchers, and another 17 on the timing of package (a particular focus of the ABC). But the topic of most obsessive interest to the media was Labor’s position on the tax cuts, which was the main focus of 50 separate reports, including 13 in the Sydney Morning Herald and 11 in the Financial Review since the election.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

Between The SMH, the AFR and The Australian, 13 editorials were run urging passage of the tax cuts, plus 19 articles on how beneficial for the economy they would be, often simply uncritically repeating claims by business lobby groups about the positive impact of the tax cuts, though one or two articles critical of the cuts — usually that they were not large enough — were also published.

The bulk of the analysis of the tax cuts at the Herald was the work of Ross Gittins, who repeatedly critiqued the government’s claims about the tax cuts and savaged the budget as fiscally irresponsible (Jessica Irvine also had a crack at them). But a major report by Danielle Wood at the Grattan Institute on the package, its regressivity and how it over-compensated high-income earners, was virtually ignored by the Herald journalists, who only mentioned the analysis in passing in the context of yet more commentary on Labor’s position.

The AFR, The Australian and the ABC did all cover the report in detail. The AFR also ran Richard Denniss’ criticism of the package in his regular column.

But for a package that will have a major effect on tax progressivity and inequality over coming decades, as well as the ability of governments to effectively respond to changing fiscal needs, the dearth of detailed analysis — regardless of whether you support it or not — represents a major omission by our serious media.

Instead, journalists relied on day-to-day race-calling about who was winning the contest to pass the package through parliament, a far easier task that — while also important to readers — required little expertise or analytical skill. 

As major media outlets cut journalists, and older journalists with more experience, scepticism and expertise leave the profession, the balance between high-quality policy analysis and mere race-calling and focus on political trivia will continue to shift.

And that analysis, when done, is likely to rely ever more heavily on think tanks, whether ideologically aligned like the Australia Institute or the Centre for Independent Studies, or the much more rare independent bodies like Grattan.