Economics reporting in Australia focuses on reporting developments in the national economy—and, occasionally, the state economies—and the efforts of governments and their agencies to influence the economy. It covers economic policy—micro-economic as well as macro-economic. It is to be distinguished from business and finance reporting, which focuses on the activities of listed companies and the stock exchange.
Economics journalists devote most of their time to reporting and interpreting movements in the wide range of economic indicators published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, covering unemployment, inflation, wages, retail sales, housing activity, gross domestic product, trade and much else. Other economic indicators are published by the Reserve Bank of Australia, while the commercial banks sponsor regular surveys of business and consumer confidence.
Economics journalists also report the federal Budget, and official reports, speeches and press releases by senior economic ministers and bureaucrats, including announcements of changes in official interest rates by the Reserve Bank, as well as statements from business lobby groups.
Most economics reporting is done from the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery. The main national and metropolitan newspapers have specialist economics correspondents in the Gallery, most of them with tertiary qualifications in economics. In smaller Gallery bureaux, the reporting is done by political correspondents.
There was little distinction between financial and economics reporting until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when economics became seen more clearly as a specialty within federal political journalism. During the 17 years he spent as financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), Tom Fitzgerald combined editorials and commentary on economic management with his path-breaking exposés of corporate mismanagement. When he left to join the Australian in 1970, he was replaced by a financial editor and an economics editor, although the SMH employed the British journalist J.C. Horsfall as its economics editor for several months before he became editor of the new Australian Financial Review (AFR) in 1951. By contrast, Max Newton, who joined the SMH in 1957, would always have written more about the economy in a political context.
Referring to SMH editors of the 1950s, Horsfall complained in his book, The Liberal Era (1974): ‘The trouble with most editors was that the subject of economics which had become the main stuff of politics was largely a mystery to them.’ It was this dawning realisation that led to greater media interest in reporting the economy. This perception was mightily reinforced in 1974 when, after the first OPEC oil shock, ‘stagflation’—simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment—led governments in all the developed economies to lose confidence in Keynesian economic policy and begin a period of experimentation. The restoration of low inflation and low unemployment was to dominate those governments’ concerns throughout the remainder of the 1970s and the 1980s—longer in Australia’s case. Tracking the ups and downs of the economy has remained a major media interest to this day.
The financial deregulation of the 1980s had the effect of greatly expanding the choice of sources available to economics reporters, with a growth in the number of financial market economists keen for publicity and the Reserve Bank’s need to be more active in media relations. More think-tanks and university research centres have also helped reduce Treasury’s former dominance of economic information.
The rise of economics journalism as a specialty within political journalism can be traced in the careers of its leading practitioners. Kenneth Davidson worked for Treasury before becoming the Australian’s Canberra-based economics correspondent in 1965 and the Age’s economics editor in 1974. Alan Wood, who had been a Canberra economics correspondent for the AFR, became economics editor of the SMH. After a period out of daily journalism, he returned as economics editor of the Australian. P.P. McGuinness joined the AFR as an economics reporter in 1971, left to work for the Whitlam Labor government, then returned as economics editor in 1974. When Ross Gittins, a chartered accountant, joined the SMH as a cadet in 1974, he was encouraged to focus on economics, sent to Canberra as economics correspondent and returned to Sydney in 1976 to replace the departing Wood as economics editor.
Whereas in recent decades governments have sought to discourage contact between journalists and bureaucrats, economics journalists have been able to maintain active contact with senior econocrats, including in Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Although almost all economics reporters are located within the Press Gallery, some economics editors are based in Sydney.
American practice is for movements in economic indicators to be reported in neutral terms, accompanied by balanced quotes from experts saying the figures are either good or bad. In Australia, however, reporters are more likely to take their own stand on whether the movement is good news or bad, partly because they are more likely to have economics qualifications and on-the-job training in the interpretation of statistics. But this can lead reporters and their editors to judge movements according to their perception of whether readers would regard the change as good or bad. Movements in interest rates, for instance, are almost invariably judged from the perspective of readers with a mortgage rather than those dependent on interest from investments. An over-used formula in modern times is for movements in indicators to be judged according to whether they make an increase or decrease in the official interest rate at the next meeting of the Reserve Bank board more likely or less likely. Falls in the dollar are usually taken to be bad and rises good, mainly because of their effects on the prices of imports and overseas holidays; effects on the competitiveness of Australian industries tend to be ignored. A fall in unemployment during an election campaign may be billed as ‘good news for the government’ rather than good news for those seeking jobs.
Perhaps because there is so much room for interpretation of economic developments, economics journalism tends to involve more analysis and commentary than other specialist areas of journalism. This is largely the role of economics editors, who tend to do little reporting and even less editing. Whereas political journalists strive to appear even-handed in their commentary—telling Labor how to win one week then the Coalition the next—economics editors rarely hesitate to push their own view of what constitutes good policy. The line they take generally reflects the economic orthodoxy they were taught at university, which is regularly reinforced by their bureaucratic contacts. It can thus be argued that the work of economics journalists played a part in the rise of economic rationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, and the various micro-economic reforms to which it led—particularly the phasing out of protection against imports.
REFs: R. Gittins, ‘The Role of the Media in the Formulation of Economic Policy’, Australian Economic Review (4th quarter, 1995) and ‘Economic Journalism: How Influential are Journalists?’, Economic Papers, 30(4) (2011).