Money Talks – Regional Media Struggle to Cover Public Finances

September 21, 2022

Stable democracies depend on strong, transparent relationships between governments and independent media.

Historically, governments have relied on the media to communicate with citizens so that they receive the information that shapes their day-to-day decisions, like how to vote, what schools to attend, and when and where to buy property. Improving media coverage creates something of a virtuous circle. More nuanced and probing stories nurture better informed electorates. Studies also show that news coverage improves the quality of information disclosure by government departments.

An informed media is also beneficial for economic growth as regular, accurate reporting undergirds confidence in local markets through the dissemination of information. For a nation to grow, it must have a strong and responsible media.

Journalists across the region are now frequently called upon to cover numerous stories including budgets, the misuse of public funds, corruption, deepening financial ties with China, Australia and the US, blue bonds, and the activities of public-private partnerships. Yet, covering such topics well increasingly requires a combination of access to government officials, transparency, and specialized knowledge of public finance. Are media in the region adequately trained and prepared to carry out this important financial information sharing mission?

That was the question behind a brief study commissioned by the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji. The report was set in motion as UNDP is launching a new phase of programming on public finance oversight, thanks to the support of the European Union. The Vaka Pasifika project will provide opportunities for journalists in the region to interact with public finance decision makers and leaders as well as experts. The project wanted to take the current state of reporting as a point of departure. Interviews with reporters, editors and publishers in about 10 countries suggest that as public finances become more complex, interpreting and covering economic decisions in deeper and helpful ways has become more challenging.

The UNDP survey had two elements. The first was a quantitative examination of public finance coverage in the region. Using a set of keywords against a digital scraping tool we identified over 8,400 online media stories in regional media written since the start of 2021 about public finances. The most common stories dealt with national budgets and revenues. Not surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of these stories were generated by media in Fiji, which has a rich media ecosystem.

Some of the findings came as no surprise, such as the sharp uptick in stories around the time national annual budgets are released. The other was that the English-language media with the most coverage of public finances in the region is NDTV, an India-based media platform. Over 1,400 stories on public finances in the region were published on the NDTV web site. News agencies like Reuters and Agence France Presse (AFP) have also been important generators of coverage.

A second part of the UNDP inquiry was the set of interviews carried out with media leaders. This was done by phone and zoom interviews between June and August 2022. These media professionals were asked a number of questions with the goal of soliciting their views on the ability of the media in their country to thoroughly cover public finances.

One of the findings show that many media professionals expressed frustration over the current state of things. They fear that their staff are not up to the challenge of covering fiscal issues. They also note that the quality of governance may weaken as the intermediary function of the media gets replaced by disclosures by government officials. There are also concerns that the relationship between independent media and governments may be fraying. While the media see the role of a critical press as vital, they increasingly sense government counterparts would prefer that the media help mobilize public support for the state rather than probe and report hard and possibly divisive news.

Access to government documents is also a challenge. Media leaders in six out of nine countries where UNDP conducted interviews said obtaining official data and responses to their questions on public finances have become more difficult, even in the face of local laws meant to improve media access to information.

“We used to be able to go to the Government printer and get reports for any ministry. Now getting budget statements is very difficult. We are going backwards,” said Mary Fonua, Publisher of Matangi Tonga.

Another worry is about the quality and commitment of new reporters. As with the rest of the world, journalism school graduates are among the lowest-paid college-educated workers joining the labor force. They are also increasingly likely to have been trained by people with doctorates, but with little or no experience as investigative reporters or editors. Perhaps not surprisingly, graduate and undergraduate interest in journalism education is on the wane. In six out of nine countries where interviews were conducted, media leaders said their staff were not adequately prepared to cover public finances.

In some instances, local media are coming up with innovative ways to deliver news on local finances. Greg Parker, the founder of Cook Islands TV, has created a weekly show where he has breakfast with the prime minister. The show is called “Budget Breakfast” and Parker gets to probe about all manner of issues concerning public finances. 

Based on the study, UNDP is reaching out to the journalists currently writing on public finance to provide professional support they may need. If you are interested, do not hesitate to reach out too.