Economy 101

The Free Market Project, a division of the conservative Media Research Center, has released a report criticizing the three broadcast networks for downplaying "strong growth and, instead, emphasized negatives such as corporate layoffs and outsourcing in more than half the stories about jobs or unemployment."

One should not make the mistake of treating the report as objective. The mission of the MRC is to prove "that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values," and "also to neutralize its impact on the American political scene." It's worth checking out – and I should point out that one of its conclusions is that CBS is "the worst network" when it comes to economic reporting – but bear in mind that many of the conclusions that such a report will come to are pretty much settled before the research is even begun.

That does not mean, however, that the issue of how the press covers the economy is not an important one. The economy is vast, fast changing and difficult to characterize simply. It's easy to cherry pick facts to paint a positive or negative picture, something that politicians and partisans do regularly, particularly during an election cycle. News outlets have to try to cut through the rhetoric, which can be particularly difficult to since most journalists lack an understanding of complex economic concepts. And they also have to try to provide context so that news that seems to suggest wider implications – say, job cuts at a particular company – doesn't give media consumers an inaccurate overall picture of the economy.

Blogger Brad Delong, in the syllabus to a course he is teaching this semester at Berkeley called "Covering The Economy," articulated the problem for print journalists this way:

Nobody goes into journalism to write bad stories that mislead their readers and omit or downplay the important news of the events that they are covering. Journalists, especially daily journalists have a very difficult job. They are under ferocious deadline pressure. They are beat reporters--which means that they cannot afford to alienate their sources too far, for they have to go back to them again and again. They are dealing with complicated and subtle issues. And at least half the people they talk to are telling them subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lies.
I talked to CBS News business correspondent Anthony Mason about the challenges of covering the economy.

"One of the things that I find really tough is trying to find people who are in the middle," he says. "There are always economists who will say things are really great, and always some that will tell you the sky is falling. They all make arguments based on data. And they're all really well educated, and really smart, and have degrees from Harvard and Yale. You have to try to figure out which one is right."

Mason says he's found that "economists for the most part lean Republican, or at least they lean conservative in an economic sense," particularly those at Wall Street banks. He also says the press has largely failed the public in its reporting on economic issues.

"For the most part, broad based media has done a lousy job of explaining the economy to people," he says. "Most Americans find economic news impenetrable and it's our fault. For a long time, it's been portrayed as an 'us vs. them' thing. There are stories about how big bad business is laying people off. But companies get a bad rap when all that gets reported is the layoffs. They got a bad rap when they were outsourcing jobs. I don't think enough has been done in the mainstream media to explain how the economy really works and how jobs get created and how they disappear."

Mason defends CBS News' economic reporting, however.

"We've done a fair number of stories on the fact that there's been job growth," he says. "The way the 'Evening News' covers the economy is from the ordinary person's point of view. We try not to do CNBC-type coverage where we're taking you down to real nitty gritty things. We're trying to paint a real big picture with a real broad brush."

"It's not an exact science," he adds. "If it was, a whole lot more people would be rich."