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Friday, July 14, 2006

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

Brad DeLong, writing in Project Syndicate, says if we demand better coverage of economics by journalists, we will get it:

The Tabloid Syndrome, by J. Bradford DeLong, Project Syndicate: The world is a complex and intricate place. So how are we to understand even just a piece of it, say, the United States government and its economic policies? It is a big problem, for the standard sources that I was taught as a child to rely upon – newspapers and television news – are breaking down.

For example, in early February 2004, the then Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw, spent some time trying to explain the issues surrounding “outsourcing” to America’s elite political news reporters. Mankiw’s standard description of outsourcing is very much like mine – indeed, like that of all neoclassical and neoliberal economists – and goes something like this:

As with any change in technology that increases the volume of international trade in goods and services, the outsourcing of service-sector jobs creates winners and losers – but almost surely more and bigger winners than losers. Big winners are workers in poor countries who get better jobs working for firms that can now export services to rich countries. The major losers are those who previously held the now-outsourced service-sector jobs; they must now find new and different jobs and almost surely find that their skills are worth less.

But even in the US, losers’ losses are outweighed by winners’ gains. Workers in certain industries find their skills in higher demand as foreigners spend their increased dollar earnings, consumers benefit from lower prices, and shareholders and managers see their companies’ profits increase. However much we may worry about the distributional consequences of outsourcing, we should never overlook the fact that it increases the total size of the economic pie.

Mankiw made that argument, but he failed to be understood. Indeed, on February 10, 2004, he woke up to an unpleasant news story in the Washington Post: ”President Bush’s top economist yesterday said the outsourcing of US service jobs to workers overseas is good for the nation’s economy.... Mankiw’s comments come as the president struggles to shore up support in manufacturing states that have lost millions of jobs....Mankiw’s conclusions may prove discordant during an election year...”

It happened again on February 11: “Democrats...lit into President Bush’s chief economist yesterday for his laudatory statements on the movement of U.S. jobs abroad.... Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) called for the resignation of N. Gregory Mankiw...”

Of course, the Washington Post’s journalists know, on some level, that they were being unfair to Mankiw. They didn’t claim that what he said was inaccurate, or shortsighted, or analytically unsound. The descriptive terms they used – “discordant,” “embarrassing,” “political liability” – suggest that they knew they were giving Mankiw a raw deal.

But was there any sign of the standard economic analysis of outsourcing in their stories? Not one. ... The problem is that conveying accurate information about the economy is far down the list of priorities for normal news reporters. Making a splash matters. So does keeping track of who is up politically and who is down. So does pleasing your editors so that they’ll give your stories better placement, and pleasing your sources so that they’ll keep talking to you. Compared to these imperatives, there is little to be gained from informing the public about how the economy really functions and about the dilemmas of economic policy.

Indeed, the economy is vastly inferior to Hollywood as a source of glitterati gossip, but much economic reporting makes the coverage of the birth of Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s baby look profoundly serious. ... What can we do about this? The answer is simple, and it is a matter of demand, not supply. After all, few people go into journalism to deliberately mislead the public. If we demand better economic and political journalism the way we demand excellent coverage of the World Cup, we’ll get it.

To me, this a pessimistic conclusion. I'm don't know enough about soccer to evaluate World Cup coverage, but my impression of the coverage of many other sports is that it suffers from the same problem. The Olympics is one example where analysis is crowded out by more popular human interest stories, and even in sports like baseball and football you don't get a lot of coverage of the technical aspects of the game much beyond the surface. Like economics, good analysis is out there, but it's not always found in the mainstream media.

When constructing demand curves, information is important. You can't demand something you don't know about. And if you do know about it, but only have partial information on quality and other aspects of the good or service, demand will be suboptimal relative to the full information outcome. I think journalism in economics is like this. In many cases, the journalists themselves don't know enough economics to differentiate good analysis from other types of reporting, and the public can't demand better coverage because they aren't sure what it ought to be like.

That's where economists writing in blogs, Op-Eds, Project Syndicate, and a host of other places can help. Our job is, in part, to help people differentiate the good from the bad, to let people know that the news page of the Wall Street Journal is trustworthy, but its editorial page is not. That some reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times are better than others, that the National Review Online is often more interested in selling an ideology than doing good economic analysis. People turn to experts when they can't evaluate quality, we have diamonds assayed, we have inspectors examine houses, we take used cars to mechanics, there are lots of cases where it is up to the experts to help the public determine quality and other aspects of transacting in the marketplace.

So I am not going to lay the problem solely on the doorstep of the public and ask that they demand better coverage as the answer. The public has a role to play here, but economists have an important role to play too, and in the past we have not done enough. We have been far too reluctant to answer questions when reporters call, or to take the time to write Op-Eds, etc. for local and national papers explaining economic policy, explaining how the economy works (so bring your laptop and write posts at the beach - we need all the help we can get). Blogs and other means of electronic communication are helpful and people have place to turn for analysis of the news that didn't exist before, recent claims about tax cuts paying for themselves is one example, but we need to do more. This is our problem too.

    Posted by on Friday, July 14, 2006 at 09:43 AM in Economics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (10)


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