Australia’s media isn’t accurately reporting all sides of the Murray-Darling Basin debate

A lack of balance in media reporting may have harmed public perception of environmental water allocations in the Murray-Darling – and Indigenous custodians barely get a look in

Dr Anna Kosovac and Dr Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

Dr Anna KosovacDr Erin O'Donnell

Published 11 March 2024

We have a problem with reporting environmental water issues in the Murray-Darling Basin – and it’s not good for anyone, least of all the environment.

Our research team – which includes experts from law, hydrology, planning, policy and media – analysed media reporting in the major Australian print and online news outlets over 20 years and found that the way environmental water is framed is far more likely to be anti- than pro-environmental water.

Water extraction is a major factor in the distress of the Murray-Darling Basin. Picture: New Matilda / Flickr

The Murray-Darling Basin is the lifeblood of agriculture and regional communities in South-Eastern Australia, and the sovereign and sacred lands of over 50 First Nations. However, it is in severe distress.

We’ve seen multiple massive fish kills across the landscape, with over-extraction during drought combined with nutrient overload in extreme floods leading to increasing frequency of dangerous algal blooms.

Returning water to the environment is meant to rectify many of the issues plaguing the basin.

In 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan committed to returning the Basin to a sustainable level of extraction, which required the recovery of 3,200 billion litres (3,200GL) of water for river health by 2019.

Delivery of this water has been highly contested, and in 2023, the Commonwealth Water Act was amended to extend the deadline for water recovery to 2027.

Water for the environment is heavily politicised in the Basin, as farming communities perceive this water as taken from them to go to the environment, which causes a fear of rural community decline.

This situation is not helped by media reporting.

The media plays a significant role in providing people with information. But we found a clear anti-environment bias.

We found a total of 2,721 print and online articles that mentioned environmental water in the Murray-Darling Basin and focused on 303 stories where environmental water was the main, or one of the main, topics of the article.

There were 25 per cent less pro-environmental water articles than anti-environmental water articles.

Articles were skewed towards an anti-environmental water agenda. Picture: Michael Storer/Flickr

Voices matter

We looked at who was featured in these articles – because the voices that get called upon for comment by journalists matter.

In 2017, the Border Mail reported, “National Farmers’ Federation Vice President Les Gordon said ... that reduced water availability was already costing $550 million a year in lost regional production.”

Like this example, quotes from irrigator and farmer lobby groups tend to carry more anti-environmental water sentiment, and they couch their comments in economic or irrigation concerns, rather than concern for environmental outcomes – although this is not universal.

Environmental NGOs and other lobby groups take the opposite position, calling for more environmental water, often at the expense of water for irrigation.

Environment Victoria’s Juliet Le Feuvre was quoted in The Australian in 2016: “When they haggled over the Basin Plan in 2012, governments whittled down the share of the water dedicated to keeping native fish, waterbirds and rivers healthy; they cannot go any lower now without putting them at risk.”

Politicians, probably unsurprisingly, focus on economic factors, over and above the environment.

In 2016, then Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce was quoted in The Land saying, “We understand that if the farmers make money, the tyre dealers make money, if the farmers make money, the shops make money (and) the economy makes money, … We’ve made we get the most efficient use of an environmental outcome that will leave water with the economic base of the community.”

This is in contrast to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the government entity responsible for managing the river system for human and environmental needs. The Authority mostly discusses environmental issues.

Barkanji man and political candidate Owen Whyman campaigned to protect Indigenous water rights for the Barka-Darling River. Picture: Getty Images

Traditional Owners have a deep cultural connection to and responsibility for waterways and have managed the Murray-Darling Basin sustainably for tens of thousands of years. When they speak, it is often with sadness for the state of the river system, or in anger and frustration that their inherent rights are ignored.

We found that their voices were almost never heard in articles focusing on environmental water.

Meanwhile, academics and researchers tend to provide an evidence-based perspective, though focused on their particular area of research, like environmental studies or economics.

Who has the loudest ‘voice’?

It was a highly biased affair.

Politicians made up 37 per cent of mentions in our analysis, followed closely by irrigators and their lobby groups at 34 per cent, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on 20 per cent.

This has led to an overrepresentation of the economic value of water rather than environmental and community benefits and impacts.

The most alarming things were the omissions.

Indigenous voices were only featured twice in the 303 articles we analysed. This means that they were called upon in less than 0.7 per cent of articles on environmental water.

Academics and researchers were quoted or mentioned in only 10 per cent of articles. For environmental groups or lobbies, this drops to only 8.5 per cent of articles.

Media organisations strongly influence public opinion, so this lack of balance has likely harmed public perception of environmental flows to the Murray-Darling Basin.

This has important implications for the federal government’s environmental water purchase program. Water buybacks are perceived as ‘taking’ water away from farmers, but the truth is they are voluntary and the cheapest method of water recovery for the environment.

Environmental water buybacks are voluntary and cost effective. Picture: Getty Images

Recently, the Federal Minister for Water was accused of spending $129 per litre to recover water for the environment, when in actuality, the water cost less than one cent per litre.

In a highly politicised context like environmental water, the evidence matters.

It is very possible that media organisations do not realise this lack of balance exists, as it is only through analyses like these (which take several months to manually dissect) that the issue becomes apparent.

In future, when reporting on environmental water, this imbalance should be addressed. This means giving greater space to First Nations, environmental organisations and academics.

Maybe we can’t take the politics out of water for the environment. But if everyone is heard, then maybe we can begin to reach agreement on what needs to be done.

The research team is happy to speak with any media organisation and provide a more detailed breakdown of their reporting practices. Contact for further information.

Banner: Graziers next to an almost dry Barka-Darling River in 2019/Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


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