Housing howler

Sam Warburton
Insights Newsletter
6 July, 2018

Journalists have a hard job. As well as being underpaid, they are constantly copping an earful from frustrated or confused readers, trolls, and even economists.

By and large they do a superb job: often on years’-long stories such as the meth testing debacle and the failings of Housing New Zealand.

Like all of us, they sometimes get things wrong.

The good ones correct their errors. The bad ones move to talkback radio.

But what about when the error correction is also wrong?

The Herald made a huge-if-true claim that non-residents were buying, not 3 percent of houses as Statistics New Zealand recently said, but 21 percent.

If true, this would not only have implications for housing policy, but for the credibility of the government agency we should trust the most. Heads at Statistics New Zealand would roll more than their rolling-averages.

The story was shared widely by other journalists and politcal spin doctors, and among anti-immigration parts of social media.

What the Herald had done was count New Zealand residents as, bizarrely, non-residents.

The Herald had taken the 3 percent of non-residents and added the up to 18 percent of houses purchased by people, or trusts and businesses representing people, who are non-citizens but resident in New Zealand.

These are people you know. A recruit at your workplace recently arrived from overseas. Or an aunty of yours; in New Zealand longer than you have been alive, but never having got her citizenship because she has no desire to ever run for Parliament.

I emailed the reporter. The next day the Herald’s story was somewhat corrected, but contained a new allegation: that Statistics New Zealand had claimed that non-citizens (so, including residents) only accounted for 3 percent of house purchases, and that the true number was up to 21 percent.

While unlikely, it’s mathematically possible that the true number of non-citizens buying houses is as high as 21 percent, but Statistics New Zealand never claimed otherwise. Statistics New Zealand reported that 3 percent of purchases were by people overseas.

The initial story sullied the reputation of Statistics New Zealand and stoked prejudice against foreigners. The new story still sullied its reputation, but now drove a wedge between citizens and residents. Both were wrong factually and morally.

Insights does not have readership that the Herald does, but I hope this goes some way to correcting the harm. 

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