Media Botch

Feb 11, 2016

Surely the media can do better than this?

The relentlessly negative way the mainstream media presented the Andrews Governmen's planned 'sky train' highlights the immense power it has to shape the way policy is made

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Video of Caulfield to Dandenong level crossing removal project
Official video of Caulfield to Dandenong level crossing removal project

Although it wasn’t the only one, Melbourne’s putative paper of record, The Age, emphasised in its news reporting this week how those living close to the Victorian Government’s planned elevated rail line feel the $1.6 billion project will make them worse off:

Look at the first report The Age published on this issue on the weekend, $1.6 billion elevated rail project to replace level crossings on Dandenong line. It’s a long story, 1,321 words excluding captions.

The headline’s neutral, but you have to read through 813 words and eight images before you come to the first positive words about the project – as a point of comparison, the article you’re now reading is 744 words in total!

There are 293 words quoted directly from four critics including the Leader of the Opposition, compared to just 34 from two supporters, the Premier and an academic.

Of course the media has a responsibility to give exposure to dissenting views. But as we know from the debate around climate change, not all views warrant equal weighting.

So-called denialists demand equal exposure on television or in print irrespective of the level of support they attract in the community, the quality of the evidence they rely on to support their claims, or their underlying motivation.

In this instance, The Age gave one critic a platform to complain that elevating the rail line presented a risk of derailed trains falling on properties and of paedophiles in passing trains preying upon her children while they swam in the backyard pool.

That’s patent rubbish and should never have made it into print. Neverthless, residents have legitimate concerns; the prospect of a nine metre viaduct along the back fence is understandably distressing.

But if the claims by the Government are true, this project will benefit many more people than it afflicts. The key benefits are a significant cost-saving over the most likely alternative (trenching) and the “creation” of 22.5 hectares of land that can be used for other purposes like parkland. See my initial assessment, Is the future of this train line up in the air?

The Age seems to suggest in this editorial that saving money is a questionable objective; that the Government’s real agenda in elevating the rail line is to save money rather than pay the extra it costs to build below ground level.

Where did the idea that it’s somehow unbecoming for governments to be careful and prudent with public funds come from? Since when did the ridiculously high cost of building infrastructure (e.g. $11 Billion for 9km Melbourne Metro) become a matter of little concern?

If elevating the line yields a modest saving (say $100 million), then that’s a lot of extra money that could be used in other ways e.g. for schools, health facilities, prisons, art galleries, solar energy generators, buses, trams, trains.

And that 22.5 hectares of “created” land is very valuable, even used as parkland. It would otherwise cost a large sum and take a long time to acquire land on this scale in this location.

If the way The Age frames this issue results in the Government backing off and putting the line below ground level, nearby residents will no doubt feel they’re better off, but those wider benefits will be foregone.

The bigger issue here is the power of media to influence government. It can’t simply ignore the impact on public policy of the way it frames an issue or what it chooses to campaign on.

The Fourth Estate has an important role that comes with an obligation to be conscious of the inevitable impact of its actions. That role is supposed to make us collectively better off, not privilege the concerns of the few.

The narrow way The Age has framed this matter in its news reporting lowers the quality of debate in Melbourne around important public issues. (1)

It should start applying the lofty rhetoric of the Walkleys to the way it conducts the other 95% of its activities i.e. routine news reporting (2).


  1. It’s done better in its commentary and editorial (but who reads editorials?).
  2. Although it’s time the Walkleys were revamped – see Do the Walkleys promote hard-nosed policy debate?
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16 thoughts on “Surely the media can do better than this?

  1. Dylan Nicholson

    bramt, the complaint is presumably that “informing” shouldn’t be the first step, rather “consulting”.

  2. Saugoof

    I’m a bit conflicted here. On the one hand I love the idea of the skytrain, (well I’d prefer it to be underground, but can’t justify the extra cost) and really hope this goes ahead. On the other, one of my friends lives right next to one of the lines that is likely going to be elevated which means that their backyard is in shade pretty much all through winter and I can see why he’s totally opposed to it. Still, that’s about as close to “not in my backyard” as you can get.

  3. bramt

    I don’t get the complaint about only informing residents ‘hours before’ it is announced. It doesn’t matter when you inform people – if you tell 1000 people something, of course it will be in the news the next day, ‘announced’ or not.

    If you told them a week before announcing, it would be in the news and you’d be accused of ‘creating uncertainty’ for not committing to it or some rubbish.

  4. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    It is possible to estimate the health benefits form new green space in a local community.
    A project providing additional public green spaces equivalent to 11 MCCs, (the new ISO open green space standard) will be quite some government achievement. The Age’s rather negative cover of building a sky train between Caulfield and Dandenong is well balanced by > .
    The amount of new green space being introduced as well as the capacity for 11,000 more rail users would be a more meaningful and real news-break to the more thoughtful people interested in urban transport improvement in the Melbourne metropolis.
    At may be a surprise to The Age editors that the majority of their readers actually care about community benefiting facts rather than NIMBY statements and the potential photo opportunities generated.

  5. David Hand

    More collateral damage from Andrews spending hundreds of millions to kill off the road tunnel under Fitzroy. Having done that, he would be ridiculed for proposing another tunnel under Toorak.

  6. Alan Davies

    Smith John #7:

    Important to know the difference in cost for road over/under versus elevated rail for those crossings that aren’t well integrated with strip centres. I think though the Government has simply ruled out a road solution as politically too hard.

  7. Tom the first and best


    Moving the road in bad urban planning.

    The new Noble Park station will better integrate with the local shopping strip.

    Caulfield-South Yarra up-up-down-down is practically dead as a concept because of line separation. They do not want to mix Frankston line trains with Dandenong line trains because that would reduce reliability.

  8. Tom the first and best


    The properties effected or who believe they might be effected include more than those who live in houses up against the line or on the other side of side streets. It effects several houses further, particularly the section of the Murrumbeena-Hughesdale section where the current railway is on an embankment because of and old creek (the actual creek is in a pipe but the ground still dips noticeably).

    The number of residences along near the line is increasing with densification, although this is partly reducing the number of further away residences effected by blocking out sound and view.

    I seriously doubt that the proposed line would be back down at ground level by halfway between Hughesdale and Oakleigh. For starters, with the maximum gradient of 1 in 50 and associated vertical curve requirements, the 9 metre viaduct needs at least 500m and I think they might want a softer gradient than the maximum. I suspect that one of the reasons they are planning to move Hughesdale station to the other side of Poath Rd (the Murrumbeena side) is that they want the extra incline length. I also suspect the want to have the rail rise from as close as possible to Oakleigh to allow a better position for getting the railway over the Richardson St/Paddington St crossing (currently a pedestrian level crossing).

  9. Dylan Nicholson

    JSmith, but that $100 million cost is spread across all taxpayers, not just those 750 people, so the downside is minimal. But I’d agree it fails the “fairness” test, which is why you can’t decide on a project purely based on the average size of the benefit.
    Actually for me the biggest benefit likely to come out of the elevated railway idea is proof that it works well and that we should be doing more of it around Melbourne.

  10. Smith John

    Further random thoughts:

    Centre Rd Clayton: A commercial area of no distinction. Surely road under would be easy and would greatly reduce the needed length of rail overpass through Clayton.

    Three Noble Park crossings: Building about 3km of viaduct with a new Noble Park station to avoid these seems excessive. All have fairly spacious sites where it would be easy to build a small horseshoe bridge or underpass.

    The structure approaching Caulfield should be designed to preserve the possibility of converting Caulfield-City to up-up-down-down running in future. What exactly is proposed? The public information seems to be limited to glossy artists’ impressions with no hard information about the design.

  11. Smith John

    Dylan #1

    You’re right. We need to consider costs and benefits. Google maps suggests to me that between Caulfield and Oakleigh about 250 dwellings abutting the rail line or a street adjacent to the line would be affected [1].

    Let’s say that’s 750 people. If it costs $100 million more to trench the line to keep these folks happy (Alan’s suggestion above, but I think we have no idea what this figure would be really), that’s like $130,000 per person. It seems like a lot to me to buy people off. Remember that there are lot more people who don’t live right next to line who would benefit from the proposed civic improvements.

    I’m sympathetic to the feelings of people affected by infrastructure plans, but there comes a point where the responsibility of government is to act for the greater good of the community as a whole.

    Note 1: assuming the ramp is back to ground level about halfway between Hughesdale and Oakleigh

  12. boscombe

    Surely the most winning argument against putting the rail line up in the air to get rid of those level crossings is that it will just attract more cars on to the roads? [teasing]

  13. Teddy

    But surely there’s nothing worse than having trainloads of paedophiles looking into your backyard!

    Seriously though, the media will always look for points on conflict in any story, and if it can’t find any, it will often invent them. Bad news and conflicts always make for a better story than good public policy!

    This is not just a tabloid thing, it’s just the way journalists and their managers are trained to look at the world. The most outrageous examples are often found in local suburban papers, but they’re also increasingly in the so-called “quality” papers run by Fairfax too. As we all know, their papers are the most threatened with extinction, so it makes good business sense for them to focus on Nimby-ish violation of property rights stories. For what does the average Age reader (SMH in Sydney) value more than their leafy suburban or renovated inner city property? This is a business model – and believe it or not – despite all the lofty ideals that journos waffle on about at the Walkleys, basically everyone still employed in this precarious business likes to be paid.

    I know it’s painful to see the distorted and agenda-driven reporting that results, especially over transport and planning project that make good sense. But whenever I start to feel as outraged as obviously you are Alan, I click on this guy’s blog called Angry people in local newspapers

    And have a laugh instead.

    Did the Age run a photo of the lady with the pool? Was she standing with her arms crossed looking grumpily up in the sky where the Deviant Express would be thundering past?? If so submit it!

  14. Tom the first and best

    The section with the houses, which is getting almost all the media and political attention, is also the only section in a marginal seat.

  15. Tom the first and best

    The Age is a news source whose bread and butter are leafy Melbourne suburbs. Focusing news on issues that effect leafy Melbourne suburbs.

    It also shows pro-Liberal and pro-loud voices bias.

    The different sections of the proposed sky rail have different levels of cost and benefit. The 2 sections further out are almost exclusively between streets, rather than the houses that dominate the Oakleigh-Caulfield section.

    The sections between houses have a higher effect on residents than those between streets.

    The sections between streets have good access and good passive surveillance and are of significant potential use to local communities. The sections between houses are harder to access and mainly of use as a cycling path (which might get some reasonable use if it has easy signalled crossings of the main roads and good access to Monash Caulfield).

  16. Dylan Nicholson

    “the project will benefit many more people than it afflicts”

    Is that really sufficient criteria for deciding whether a project is desirable though? It may generate a *small* benefit for several 1000 people, but at a very significant cost to, say, half that number of people. And of course it may well be that another solution generates bigger benefits for more people and fewer downsides for fewer people.
    Though admittedly by that line of argument, the most expensive solution is almost certainly the best one – if it costs a billion dollars more over 10 years, then every taxpayer (we’ll assume 2 million of us) suffers only by having to pay ~$1 extra a week (a tiny downside), but there are virtually no other downsides and the maximum upside is achieved…

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