(Monthly column published in PR Journal)
HOW THE MEDIA HANDLE ECONOMICS NEWS continues to concern many practitioners. Some have asked for more details of the media's own negative self-evaluation reported in this space last month (March, page 2). Perhaps the most important involve what can be done to improve the coverage judged inadequate and even misleading by several publications.Editor & Publisher, which has claimed that many business and financial writers just don't understand economics and don't usually move to their jobs by choice, says they need to broaden their scope to interest their readers. Newspapers have been missing stories, says E&P, because they don't know what to look for. Business reporters and writers can use some formal training in economics, the magazine adds; to start, they need to learn the basic technology. It might even be a good idea for newspapers to have an ombudsman for their business section.
The Washingtonian also criticized the dullness of stories on economics and blamed it on the press's failure to analyze and interpret the news it reported. Well, of course, economics is not called "the dismal science" for nothing. But the magazine also agreed that many newsmen's beats are too narrow.American Economic Review, which has published a number of essays on the subject, cited oversimplification in reporting as a cause of much friction between economists and the press. The publication did note some progress in the interchange, particularly the educational job done by reporters in exploding myths about the economy.
Time, railing against newspapers for their inept coverage, indicated that the broadcast media were worse. "Until recently," it observed, "an economics degree has not been considered a good credential for newsroom recruits, and reporters have not been encouraged to specialize in the field." The magazine quotes the financial editor of Los Angeles radio station KNX, Ed Hart, "with perhaps some hyperbole: 'Editors assign cubs to the business beat and say, "Do a good job and we'll move you up to obituaries."
The print media at least include many specialized publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, but their readers are generally better equipped than most to understand their more sophisticated handling of the economics news front. Television and radio, by contrast the media of "the great unwashed" have only a few truly business/financial-oriented programs, such as Wall Street Week and, to some extent these days, Meet the Press and Face the Nation. And they, like late night talk shows, seem to draw on a relatively small coterie in this case, government and business leaders as subjects for interviews.
The networks are getting with it, however. Besides designating economics correspondents, they are now devoting more effort, research, money, and air time to covering the economy. ABC is deep into a series of Close-up documentaries on "The Washington Regulators: How They Cost You Money." In February it covered the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board. Last month it did the Internal Revenue Service. Av Westin, the network's vice president for documentaries, told Washington Focus that ABC had started research on the automobile industry for a program to be broadcast in May, and on shortages, for June. Others in the series will be on land use, (July), the Central Intelligence Agency (September), and politics involved in medical research (fall). The nation's No. 1 story will only get bigger, but maybe the media will catch up.
Alvin M. Hattal
PUBLIC RELATIONS JOURNAL