Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 24, 2014

JEFFREY McCALL: U.S. networks struggle to cover economic news

Numbers with no context passes for television reporting


Kokomo Tribune

---- — Network television newsrooms often must cover stories for which they have no internal experts. That’s why aeronautic engineers and pilots are put on the air to analyze airplane emergencies. Judges and lawyers are paraded out to discuss whatever sensational trial hits the news agenda. When it comes to news of the economy, however, television news has little interest in talking with real economists.

A new study by the left-leaning watchdog organization, Media Matters for America, shows that economists were included in only 2 percent of all evening network television or cable news segments about the economy. For this study, Media Matters defined an economist as someone who “holds an advanced degree in economics, has worked in the economics profession or has served as an economics professor.” In other words, somebody with the kind of expertise to actually analyze the nation’s economy with keen insight and depth.

Instead of getting input from economists, television journalists like to interview each other about the economy. The Media Matters study indicates 58 percent of all guests in economic news segments were other journalists. Political operatives, hacks and strategists served as economic analysts 29 percent of the time, thus injecting a high degree of partisanship into economic news.

Whatever one might think of Media Matters’ political bent, these statistics are troubling. This data provides a picture of the vacuous manner in which television covers the important topic of the economy.

Television is not comfortable covering economic news. The Media Matters study indicates that economic news gets scant treatment from the big three networks, and not much more from CNN. Fox News and MSNBC did the most segments about the economy. Not surprisingly, MSNBC focused its economic news on income inequality and the economic harm of spending cuts, while FNC focused on how Obamacare hurts job growth and tax hikes will damage the economy.

Television news producers believe economic news doesn’t fit the visual, emotional and razzle-dazzle approach they think will lure and keep viewers. It’s true that economic news is rather wonkish and difficult to explain with context and perspective. Television producers would rather tell stories with stimulating video, emotion and drama. Disasters, cute animals and funny viral videos all fit that bill, but often have no broader impact on audiences. Economic stories about interest rates, the labor market, energy costs and taxes, however, are what media analysts call high-impact stories, in that they affect virtually all Americans.

Every story about economics, it seems, no matter the subject, contains generic video of cash registers, the trading floor and money presses. No wonder audiences get bored. Television producers, as professional communicators, must find ways to make economic stories interesting, explaining the high impact to consumers.

What does pass for economics reporting today comes off like SportsCenter with lots of cheerleading for modest economic gains, numbers with no context, and talk of winners and losers. The big picture is ignored while newscasters hyperventilate about government statistics and how those might affect the market for the next 10 minutes.

Of course, there are cable television channels devoted exclusively to business news. The ratings for such channels as CNBC and Fox Business are microscopic and appeal only to a niche audience. The existence of all-business channels doesn’t excuse the mainstream channels from providing regular people with an adequate agenda of economic stories.

A study last year reported that 60 percent of the American public believes television news avoids stories that are complex. The lack of sensible reporting about the economy supports that conclusion.

The supposed media watchdogs were largely asleep in the months leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, failing to provide the public with insights into the coming problems. American consumers still rely on television as their primary news source. Should there be more rocky financial times ahead, it will be little consolation to viewers to know they were fully updated about missing airplanes, Oscar Pistorius and Chelsea’s pregnancy.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.