What's the Matter with Economic Journalism?

Economics, somebody once said, is the painful explanation of the obvious, and for some it seems, economic journalism isn't any less painful. Why is so much economic journalism -- in magazines, newspapers and, yes, blogs -- often so hard to read? Are financial writers failing at their (my) job?


The financial crisis has thrust economics into the political world, into the mainstream. But for many readers, the dark arts of Wall Street are no more perceptible. On The Awl blog, Choire Sicha makes his case in a post bluntly entitled: The Finance Press Becomes Ever More Willfully Obscure, Clubby And Unhelpful. This salvo stabs the issue pretty firmly in the heart:

Finance writers and bloggers are often willfully obscure, tradey, impenetrable and even at times useless to any audience who actually isn't working at (or recently laid off from) a bank. Why are they so willing to abandon us when they should be explaining things to use more than ever?

I'll answer the second question first. I imagine that many finance writers don't consider themselves willing to abandon mainstream readers -- they feel that mainstream readers ignored them for too long. The same way it took 9/11 to galvanize a generational interest in the Middle East, Islam and foreign policy, I suspect it took a financial crisis to galvanize an interest in finance as NEWS. Maybe Sicha shouldn't be so quick to scream about abandonment if he's only recently started following the debate, especially if he's mostly reading blogs. If blogging is a broadcast (as Andrew Sullivan likes to say), new devotees of financial journalism are tuning in in the middle of a segment. Of course they feel a bit behind.

The answer makes some sense to me, but it's also terribly insufficient. Journalism shouldn't require footnotes, it should just explain, and explain well. So to Sicha's first question: Why is financial journalism so much more inscrutable, confusing and, well, boring than political journalism, even if we can agree that it's often as important?

Politics, I think, is fundamentally different than economics because...well, I don't want to say "because it's just just simpler," even if I suspect it might be the case. Instead I'll say this: Much of economics has its own language. For many Americans, it's a foreign language. Financial regulation reforms, like assessing risk in shadow banking markets, is still, I'm unembarrassed byronleft.png to say, a bit shadowy to me. And the right way to do stimulus spending in a crisis is still shadowy for the economic industry, even though they've been studying it for 60 years!

On the other hand, you don't need to exotically expand your civic vocabulary to understand that American politics is about votes, interests and values, and when you stir them together, you get a stew called strategy. Everybody gets politics, because it's all so much like life. If you were tasked with describing politics exclusively through sports metaphors, I think you could do it pretty effectively. The Democrats struggling to write a passable health care bill to get conservative Democratic support? Kinda like a coach designing a playbook for a quarterback with compromised skills. Obama pledging openness rather than clenched fists to troubling foreign leaders isn't so different from a team's strategy of dealing with troubled players (Artest, Owens, Sprewell) through inclusion rather than punishment. On the other hand, after 10 months, I still can't conjure baseball metaphors for the Public-Private Investment Partnership.

So does financial journalism simply need more metaphors? Not necessarily. But if economics is going to be as approachable as politics, we're going to have to get creative. We can start by speaking in English, as Felix Salmon wrote, rather than Wall Street acronyms. We can start by imagining our audience, not as the author of the blog post we're responding to, but as the readers of the blog post we're writing, who don't know a CDS from an STD, because we haven't fully explained it since an entry we wrote in March. But we can do it. We can be readable!

When I first started blogging about economics, I told a friend that it sometimes felt like live-narrating the experience of deciphering a Magic Eye. It takes a while for the blurs to fade and see how the big picture comes together. In economics, sometimes there is no hidden image -- not one we can agree on, anyway. The least we can do is speak clearly about the blurriness.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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