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:
1. Pensions and Social Security - who pays for retirement.
2. Health Insurance, Drugs, and Medicare.
3. The Government: Taxing and Spending.
4. 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.
This is a fantastic idea. The first part of the course--understanding the major pieces of economic news--is a course that we (as a profession) ought to develop for undergraduates to take after intermediate macro. Combining it with longer term issues and focusing it on journalism are great additions. And the instructors invite you to play along at home.