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News coverage on the budget and tax cuts is biased

Comment by Peter Thompson, senior lecturer in the School of Communication, Unitec NZ ph.
Friday 2 June 2006

News coverage on the budget and tax cuts is biased

The One News reports on Michael Cullen's criticisms of the media last night and this morning were very interesting. Guyon Espiner did a very professional job of baiting the Minister and leading him to the logical but ultimately untenable conclusions of his arguments concerning financially-motivated budget reporting.

Unfortunately, the reports did a rather less convincing job of uncovering whether or not Dr. Cullen's concerns might be substantiated or, for that matter, actually reporting on the taxation issue originally intended as the story. In one respect, the news became focused on the media themselves and what the Minister said about them rather than on the tax issue. While Dr. Cullen's understanding of news production is perhaps rather limited (he is after all, the Minister of Finance, not broadcasting) the concerns he expressed about the media's influence on public opinion on the budget and taxation are probably justified - but not for the reasons he suggested.

The budget did not contain any major surprises. The government did pretty much what it had planned, and whether one approved or not, there was minimal scope for major controversy. This posed a problem for commercial news producers. The budget is a political-economic policy of significant public import- but without any outstanding defining feature to characterise the budget, it becomes more difficult to contrive a 'sexy' headline and newsworthy angle of discussion. Simple frames are needed to generate a concise, interesting story to capture audience attention. The genre conventions of commercial news tend to prefer simple single-issue definition to complexity, and this was no exception.

The approach of both the print and broadcast media (at least in terms of their lead stories) was therefore to frame the budget primarily in terms of anticipated tax cuts which had not occurred. Where this particular angle of analysis originated might be debated. However, the important point is that by emphasising something that was actually absent from the budget, the media presented the issue as if a reduction of taxes was a default state of normality, and something we should expect rather than an alternative policy option preferred by certain opposition parties. Indeed, the dominant frame deployed implicitly demanded that the Minister explain why he had failed to deliver something that the public had an ostensible right to, rather than why government spending required the current level of taxation to be maintained. This constitutes bias.

While one must be cautious in making claims about the influence of the media on public opinion, there is persuasive research evidence indicating that the predominant frames of reference, issue-emphasis, and parameters of salience in news stories do get picked up by the public. Obviously audiences don't just believe anything they see or read, but they can be encouraged to structure their interpretations and differences of opinion along the axis deemed salient by the media. This is why the subsequent Colmar Brunton poll commissioned by One News is, as Dr. Cullen suggests, rather suspect. The poll ostensibly indicated that the majority of New Zealanders thought the government could afford tax cuts. But this was their view after the salience of absent tax cuts as the defining issue of the budget had been emphasised across the mass media. Quite apart from the failure of the media to fully investigate the accounting rationale behind Dr. Cullen's insistence that tax cuts were not an option (meaning the public was not well informed), it is hardly surprising that when presented with an decontextualised option of paying less tax versus more tax, many people will naturally prefer the former.

Moreover, One News (along with other media) then used the poll they had commissioned as a focus to generate further topical issues to report on. This again raises questions about whether the media are there to report events or to play an active role in shaping and constructing them. So even if Michael Cullen is mistaken in directing his criticism at reporters themselves, that does not exonerate the media from indulging in a cheap and lazy form of issue-framing that generates its own newsworthiness. Perhaps the Minister will now be wondering whether he should perhaps have allocated more money to TVNZ's Charter* The New Zealand public certainly deserves better.


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