Covering the Economy: The Story Behind the Numbers
Journalism 298, Spring 2006:
J. Bradford DeLong
You are all guinea pigs.
We have never done this before. Neither has anybody else as far as we know.
In fact, it is not at all clear to us what "this" is or will be. But a number of our colleagues in economics and journalism think we’re on to something and want to help. You’ll be hearing from them in person, over the speaker phone and in Washington, D.C. over spring break.
Susan Rasky is here to get people ready to cover the U.S. and world economy for the wire services, for daily newspapers and websites and for week-in-review style pieces in print and broadcast.
Brad DeLong is here for two reasons: first, because Susan thinks he has something to offer; second, because he is being gradually driven insane by stories in major newspapers and other outlets. He’ll share some bad budget reporting from his bag of journalistic atrocities in the first class.
We both start with this premise: 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.
So what has gone wrong? And how can journalists--and those among their sources who are interested in public education and in raising the level of the debate--make things go right?
We plan to spend about the first six weeks looking at how the bread-and-butter economic news is covered and how it should be covered. What the standard statistical releases suggest about whether the economy is going up, down, or sideways--and what "up," "down," and "sideways" mean.
During the next six weeks, we will focus more closely on four or five big economic trends from which you will select story projects for publication or broadcast:
- Pensions and Social Security - who pays for retirement.
- Health Insurance, Drugs, and Medicare.
- The Government: Taxing and Spending.
- Trade, Jobs, and Earnings
Students with approved Washington reporting agendas will travel there over Spring break (week of March 27 April 2) to interview sources and meet journalistic and economic contacts.)
Tuesday classes will be Brad’s informal lectures on the economy; his readings will be posted on our JSchool intranet and on his website.
Wednesday classes will be discussion of readings, sources and story project planning and pitching. During the first few weeks we’ll also do some timed writing exercises on the indicators just to keep your fingers warm.
Guests will be scheduled for both sessions. We’re still working on the final line-up.
1/17 First Class: Overview of semester, logistics, DeLong’s horror stories, DeLong’s website, textbook, and other resources. Economic literacy test.
"Senate Passes Budget With Benefit Cuts and Oil Drilling." By ROBERT PEAR; CARL HULSE CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FOR THIS ARTICLE. November 4, 2005 http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F00B11FB3C5A0C778CDDA80994DD404482
The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a sweeping five-year plan to trim a variety of federal benefit programs and to allow drilling for oil and natural gas in a wilderness area of Alaska, increasing the chances that the energy industry and Alaska officials will achieve a long-sought goal. The budget bill, the most ambitious effort to curb federal spending in eight years, was approved by a vote of 52 to 47. Five Republicans opposed the measure; two Democrats voted for it. Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said, "This bill is a reflection of the Republican Congress's commitment to pursue a path of fiscal responsibility." It will, Mr. Gregg said, reduce the deficit and save roughly $35 billion over the next five years...
The Federal government currently spends money at the rate of $2.6 trillion a year. Total incomes in the entire American economy are about $12 trillion a year. Saving $35 billion over five years means that you are saving $7 billion a year--0.3% of federal spending; 0.06% of GDP. Out of a federal budget that spends $9,000 per person per year, Judd Gregg is saving $27 a year.
Thus reading a lead like that makes Brad DeLong, at least, foam at the mouth: phrases like "sweeping," "ambitious," "commitment," and "fiscal responsibility" simply have no place here--especially since Carl Hulse does not give his readers any of the numbers needed as reference points to assess the magnitude of the Senate's action.
Brad DeLong finds similar holes in the Washington Post's coverage. And others agree. As Paul McCleary wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review last November 4:
The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman
... obscure[s] rather than delineate major parts of the purported deficit reduction package.... Weisman first goes a little fuzzy in the fourth paragraph when he states that the bill "would shave payments to some farmers. A proposal to limit payments to rich farmers failed yesterday...." How rich?... Weren't there some specific numbers tied to this proposal? If so, why didn't Weisman include them?...
But back to the Post, where Weisman isn't done distorting by omission. Down toward the middle... "a $70 billion tax cut that could come to a vote soon after the budget bill, more than wiping out the first bill's deficit reduction."... With that, Weisman qualifies for the Buried Lede of the Week Award. As Sam Rosenfeld noted... "could it have hurt Jonathan Weisman to mention somewhere before the tenth paragraph of the piece (and less obliquely than in the passing reference he makes there) that there's a second component to the reconciliation package that's been artificially severed from the spending one, which will cut taxes for the wealthy by $70 billion?... Viewed as a whole, budget reconciliation would increase the deficit by more than $30 billion."... [T]he Post's headline..."Senate Passes Plan to Cut $35 Billion From Deficit," while technically correct, gives the reader precisely the wrong impression. Someone forgot to warn the Post's copyeditors that the news -- and the headline -- were actually tucked into that tenth paragraph. http://www.cjrdaily.org/politics/rich_man_poor_man.php
January 24/25: The Employment Release: Employment and Unemployment Numbers (with readings for that Tuesday now available here: http://delong.typepad.com/teaching_spring_2006/2006/01/covering_the_ec.html
January 31/1: The Employment Release: Wages and Earnings
February 7/8: The GDP and Productivity Releases
February 14/15: Inflation: The CPI Releases
February 21/22: International Trade Numbers
February 28/1: The Federal Reserve FOMC Meeting
Then we will go into coverage of longer-run issues and processes:
March 7/8: Poverty and Income
March 14/15: Budget Proposals and Spending Resolutions
March 21/22: Budget Outcomes and Entitlement Spending
April 4/5: Trade and the WTO
And, perhaps, thereafter examine the work done by some extremely good and skilled practitioners of journalism: perhaps William Greider, John Berry, Greg Ip, Paul Blustein, Julie Rovner, Rebecca Smith. We’ll also look at the explanatory writing of some non-journalists who can be extremely helpful to reporters on deadline, among them, Stan Collender, Jean Ross and Ed Yardeni.