The media fails to offer a critical eye on child poverty

Rose Patterson
Insights Newsletter
31 October, 2014

The media’s responsibility is to establish facts. Yet it seems the job of a journalist now is nothing more than taking a press release at face value, paraphrasing it a little, and fluffing it up.  

This week UNICEF released a report showing that New Zealand’s child poverty rate fell from 18.8% in 2008 to 18.4% in 2012, measured by the proportion of households (with children) earning under 60% of the median income. UNICEF puts this data, which comes from the New Zealand Household Economic Survey released earlier this year, into a global context.

But the global perspective provided by the Dominion Post (Little progress on child poverty – UNICEF report) is biased. It states indeed that in Australia, child poverty fell by 6 percentage points in the same period. What it doesn’t tell you is that 23 out of the 41 countries saw an increase in child poverty. In Iceland, it rose from 11% to 32%.

The Dominion Post then reports that three out of the four well-being indicators worsened between 2007 and 2013. One of these indicators is people’s opinion on whether children in New Zealand have an opportunity to learn and grow. Opinions are not hard facts. And peeling the report open, which these journalists did not seem to do, reveals several more problems.

First, these indicators are based on four survey questions, and the mind baffles at how two of these questions could possibly be valid measures of child poverty. One asks respondents about their overall life satisfaction and the other asks whether they experienced stress that day. Is your level of stress (which might increase, for example, when you come across poor journalism), a good indicator of child poverty in New Zealand?

Second, while New Zealand is ranked internationally by the change in these measures since 2008, the report does not provide actual rankings, making the data in this international comparison difficult to, well, compare.

Third, there is no information on actual responses. The report only tells you that New Zealand had the 31st sharpest change in response to the question about children’s opportunities to learn and grow.
The UNICEF press release does at least provide data on the food security question. In the past year, 14% did not have enough money for food at some point, up from 9% in 2007. This is concerning and does corroborate other data showing that the proportion of households experiencing material hardship rose from 18% in 2007 to 24% in 2011.  

Material hardship then dropped to 20% in 2012. This brings us to the final problem. Indeed, three of the four UNICEF wellbeing indicators worsened between 2007 and 2013, but the report also shows they did not worsen between 2011 and 2013. The media release and article do not mention this.

If we want to be serious about solutions for child poverty, we first need an objective understanding of the problem. The media shapes public opinion, it therefore has a responsibility to apply a critical eye to media releases and dig beneath the surface. Opening the report would be a good start.

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