To have and have not

| May 27, 2024

The news media play a vital role in shaping the public conversation and covering complex issues such as war, the economy, climate change and technology.

Yet our new research has found the news media in Australia have failed to meet the news coverage needs of those often most affected by these issues.

Our multidisciplinary team gathered by RMIT’s Innovation Catalyst used machine learning techniques to examine 114,739 articles on financial wellbeing (including personal and family finance) published since 1990. We unearthed new insights on how Australian media coverage leaves behind key groups – particularly women and those struggling financially – when covering society’s big issues.

The findings, published this week, are detailed in a report focused on how the media has covered financial wellbeing.

Topic modelling

Data scientists working with the team at RMIT accessed the Dow Jones database of all news stories printed or published online in the Australian media in the past three decades. They employed a machine learning technique called topic modelling.

This method groups articles into topics, which are then interpreted by subject matter experts from the research team. This approach allowed us to examine a much larger data set than human researchers could alone.

We found the news media have consistently allowed their coverage to be dominated by male voices and high and middle income earners.

Coverage has also tended to overlook a range of equity issues impacting women, financially disadvantaged people, and the environment.

A woman reads an ipad while sitting at a table.

Financial coverage focused on high earners

Our team was particularly interested in how the media covered financial wellbeing. This includes people’s ability to manage day-to-day and future expenses, and to live free from financial stress. It also means having resilience to cope financially with life’s unexpected events.

Stable housing is one vital component of financial wellbeing.

We found media coverage of household financial issues over the past 30 years has focused overwhelmingly on the needs of middle and upper income earners. Three topics tended to dominate Australia’s financial coverage: property, investment advice and retirement funds.

General investing advice (on issues such as the stock markets, exchange traded funds or bonds) was the most dominant topic covered by the financial media articles we studied, until September 2016 when it was overtaken by property as the dominant topic.

Social services, welfare and financial services coverage made up a very small proportion of Australia’s financial journalism.

Coverage of investment advice peaked at 140 articles in February 2013, constituting almost 45% of the total number of financial wellbeing articles we analysed from that month.

Coverage of retirement funds peaked at 72 articles per month in May 2015. That topic constituted almost 22% of the total number of financial wellbeing articles we analysed from that month. The top financial wellbeing topic for that month was investment advice (at 37%).

Property articles peaked at almost 175 per month in May 2022, constituting almost 51% of all financial wellbeing articles we analysed for that month.

Our analysis also showed the media can play an important role in providing trusted information when trust in financial institutions is low.

As trust in financial institutions was eroded during the banking royal commission and financial services inquiries of the 2010s, the media stepped up their coverage of money matters to help people negotiate complex financial decision-making.

But as we note in the report:

“There is lots of room for the financial media to report more on the financial wellbeing of a greater range of people in our communities, not just women and gender minorities, but First Nations people, cultural and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and many others. The healthiest economies are those in which all citizens enjoy financial wellbeing, not just the wealthy.”

Reporting on workplace gender equality in the context of financial wellbeing peaked at a meagre 13 articles in December 2017, according to our study.

And Australian media coverage has, over the past 30 years, largely missed the critical financial and social issues associated with financial abuse and family violence. However, this has started to change.

A stack of newspapers sits on a table

We presented our data to a roundtable of academics and community groups, which included Good Shepherd, Infoxchange and Brotherhood of St Laurence. The resulting discussion revealed an intersection between various topics not readily seen in general media coverage.

For example, as lower income Australians struggle to afford insurance in areas affected by storms, floods and fire disasters (which have become more frequent and more severe as the climate changes), agencies and governments are increasingly called on to support people who have lost everything. Lower income people are disproportionately affected by natural disasters.

The rising costs of energy are making it harder (or, for some, impossible) to cool houses during heatwaves built to standards based on outdated temperatures. This means higher living costs and a more pronounced burden on the health system. This impact, however, is not generally felt by wealthier Australians, whose issues and interests are more often represented in the news media.

This analysis showed issues such as financial wellbeing, media coverage and climate change do not exist in silos. They are interconnected. And the media has a role to play in promoting financial wellbeing for all, not just the already wealthy.

This article was published by The Conversation.