Australian journalists can’t count, can’t think

The Sun-Herald today revealed the shocking fact that the number of Australian tourists being arrested for crimes overseas has doubled in the past decade.

Bogans abroad. Photo: nineMSN
Bogans abroad. Photo: nineMSN

This plays into well-worn stereotypes about cashed-up bogans misbehaving drunkenly on football team trips to Bali, and a handful of recent, high-profile cases of Aussies charged with drug dealing, murder and espionage. Clearly we are meant to believe that our fellow countrypersons are going overseas and behaving badly — indeed much worse than ever before — or that foreign police increasingly putting Australians in the slammer at the slightest provocation.

Except. Has the number of Australians travelling overseas remained fairly static over the past 10 years? If so, this is a clear indication of growing boganisation of, or foreign law enforcement hostility to, Aussies. But if, say, the number of Australians going on overseas trips also doubled over the same period, then this statistic would be wholly unremarkable.

Let’s say 10 years ago, 100 Aussies went overseas and one was arrested. Then last year, 200 intrepid travellers boarded a Qantas jet for foreign shores and two were arrested. Whoop-de-fucking-do, you would have to say.

But for an overworked journalist writing a scare piece about how you’re twice as likely to end up being sodomised in Kerobokan Prison the instant you leave our fair shores, that’s all a bit of hard work.

If you Googled, say, ‘number of Australians travelling overseas‘ and clicked on the top link, you’d come to the Australian Bureau of Statistics publication 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sep 2010 : Holidaying Abroad. Scroll down to the last chart on the page, ‘Total short-term arrivals and departures’, which I have copied here.

ABS: Total short term arrivals and departuresWhat this looks like to me is that in 2003, the number of Australians going overseas was a bit above 3 million, and in 2010 it was pretty close to 7 million. And thanks to a strong Aussie dollar, outbound tourism surged in 2011. So at least double. Probably quite a bit more.

So. Number of Australians being arrested overseas: double. Number of Australians going overseas: more than double. In other words, Australians are LESS LIKELY to be arrested overseas than they were a decade ago. Not more. Less.

Australian journalists make this kind of error all the time. They state a scary-sounding statistic without taking into account the population growth, inflation or a dozen other factors that provide context and usually rob the number of its shock power, because it actually shows that things are about the same or getting better.

That makes them either sensationalist or stupid. Either way, they’re doing a shit job.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Darren Horrigan says:

    C’mon Josh…they’re simply not letting the facts get in the way of a bad story.

  2. You’re right. Of course you are right. The fact that the journos concerned did not take the five minutes to make a longitudinal comparison is pathetic.
    But as a working journalist whose workload this year will probably reach four short stories and most of a short feature on most days, I think your mention of an hypothetical “overworked journalist” is important, for three reasons.
    One is obvious – overworked journos will cut corners.
    The second is that online has changed the game. Everything needs a lurid headline to succeed. Stories need to meet the promise of the vivid Tweets and Facebook posts that promote them. More lurid stories are the result.
    Lastly, what I want to know is how overwork becomes an excuse for not so much cutting corners as *always* working eliptically. I strive, whenever possible, to avoid horrible analyses like the ones in the story you mention. That means relying on experience and knowledge of information sources that help me test assertions in information that comes my way. I don’t do so reflexively, however. I really should. For me the fact that I, and other journos, don’t have the reference reflex is the scariest thing of all.

  3. Josh says:

    The problem with this article is it combines all three. Cutting corners, well, chances the source was a DFAT media release rather than any research by the journalist are very high. A lurid headline to bait clicks, you bet. Failure to test the assertions, obviously.
    The broader issue is, where are the journalists who have news sense? Where are the experienced editors who take one look at the story and say, ‘Nothing here, what else have you got?’ Or don’t they do that anymore?

  4. Editors? Who are these editors of which you speak?
    I’ve not had one for years. And when I have, they’ve nearly always accepted my copy without question.Only on the broadsheets have I ever had editors come back to me, and usually only when I have been lazy.

  5. craig says:

    Yeah good article. I think it would be a stronger article to criticize Natalie O’Brien directly rather than criticize the group of ‘Australian journalists’ that Natalie belongs to.

  6. Josh says:

    Craig, I’d only single out Natalie O’Brien if she were exceptionally bad or had done something out of the ordinary. The problem is, the majority of Australian journalists make the same mistakes, deliberately or out of ignorance. I can provide examples.

  7. Bill Bennett says:

    While the chances of an individual Australian tourist ending up in a foreign jail has fallen,
    the doubling in the number of arrests could be important if the story was about the damage to the country’s reputation in other countries.

    And if that damaged reputation then had knock-on economic or diplomatic effects.

    But, that’s not where the story went.

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