Backbench Problems

A bunch of young Aussie globetrotters have just started something called the Backbench World Problems Index. In their words:

The BWPI is designed specifically to measure coverage of world problems in selected Australian newspapers. The index covers five world problems as selected by The Backbench:

  • International health
  • International security
  • The environment 
  • The global economy
  • World poverty

Basically, the BWPI will go up when any of these issues are mentioned in the headlines of selected newspapers, and go down if not mentioned. The BWPI will fall even further if headlines are dominated by topics deemed non-newsworthy as selected by The Backbench (for example, Jennifer Aniston’s latest hairstyle).

I think this is a clever idea, but the index will be affected by two main things: (a) editorial decisions and (b) world events. I reckon they’d be better off comparing newspapers with one another, to highlight just the editorial decisions. There’s a good argument for spotlighting Aussie papers that ignore big world events, but it’s not clear who we should be cross at when nothing big is happening in the world, and the papers turn elsewhere to fill their pages.

While they’re in the business of quantifying the way foreign news is reported, the lads might also want to have a go at estimating one of the more interesting statistics in international journalism: how many foreign deaths need to occur to get the same coverage as one local death. Justin Wolfers and I had a crack at estimating this number for the US, and put it at somewhere between 10 and 100. But a more precise analysis on the Australian media would probably yield different ratios for UK deaths, Indian deaths, etc. We know these numbers would be greater than 1 (and that’s probably not unreasonable), but knowing how much greater than 1 would be a useful exercise.

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7 Responses to Backbench Problems

  1. Mike says:

    “A clever idea” ?

    What a mindless waste of time and energy. I could not see what papers will form the basis of the index. The problem with this is the “care factor”.

    By any chance is one of these guys a student of yours ?

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Nope, never heard of em before. But it’s something no-one else is doing.

  3. Hughie says:

    Excellent idea, if perhaps a little mathematically primitive. Great start, though.

    At the risk of complicating things, perhaps the BWPI assessors could do a comparison with the SBS World News, which has always struck me a significantly different and more informative …

    Maybe they could also look at “ABC bias” from this perspective.

  4. Mike says:


    Just to clarify my comments above :

    The Care Factor I refered to was intended to mean that Australians in General really dont care a great deal about world news. Lets face it Jennifer sells paper and bugs attacking wheat crops in China really does not. The papers from which the Data is drawn is really important as the Fin Review and The Australian will up the index while the tele and the truth will tend to down it.

    I get most of my news off fox (the BBC News is really quite good) so paper dont command a great deal of attention.

    One of the guys running the index is studying Economics at … Wait for …. ANU chence my other question I was suspecting you of cross blog marketing. There is a lot of that going on, infact if it continues at it present rate then……..


  5. gringo says:

    I think that it is a cool idea — would like to see a comparison between Australian papers (Murdoch and otherwise) with, say, the Guardian weekly, which is actually willing to cover African news. This concept could readily be extended to cover television news, although it is likely to be quite depressing.

    Or for the BWPI as it currently stands, they could weight it by circulation, and then see where we really are.

    With regards to the coverage that foreign and local deaths receive, you could quite readily compare the number of front pages recently devoted to the London bombings with those covering the insurgent attacks in Iraq or the coal mine disasters in China that were also about that time.

    All of these could be combined to produce some sort of overall head-in-the-sand index. I suspect that this would support Mike’s ‘care factor’ argument.

  6. Kevin Yeoh says:

    Thanks very much for all the insightful comments and suggestions.

    The BWPI is still very much in its early days, and I’m sure that it’ll evolve over time. It’s still a ‘trial’ index, and other indices may follow.

    As for which papers the BWPI draws upon, it is weighted to publication, and it does have a mixture of tabloids and broadsheets.

    We know there are quite a few limitations – the maths behind it, editorial bias, weekend vs weekday. But on the whole, we think it’s an interesting exercise, and we’ll see how it goes!

    I like Andrew’s suggestion of looking at how many foreign deaths need to occur before coverage is gained.

    Thanks again!


    on behalf of The Backbench Team

  7. Sacha Blumen says:

    This reminds me a little of something from my undergrad days (a million years ago) where there were references to studies attempting to quantitatively eludicate balance in media election coverage. I remember thinking how it would be difficult to do that in a meaningful sense.

    But I like the idea underlying what these people are trying to do.

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