News Of Recession Focuses On Big Picture, Obviously

There's a new report out today from the Pew Research Center's Project For Excellence In Journalism. (summary here, full report here) It laments the fact that the little guy has been largely ignored by journalists this year in their recession reporting. Instead of worrying about the plight of average Americans, major news outlets have chosen to cover the big stories. To this complaint I can only say, well, yes. Obviously.

This chart shows its basic findings:

Pew media cov.gif

And it says:

Three storylines have dominated: efforts to help revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package and the struggles of the U.S. auto industry. Together they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage from Feb. 1 through Aug. 31. By contrast, topics that may have been harder to cover but arguably affected many more people have been covered much less. As an example, all the reporting of retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of all the economic coverage.

I find their complaint rather bizarre, because their findings are so utterly unsurprising. If you check out their methodology, they spend the lion's share of their sampling on national news outlets. As a result, it should come as no surprise that these outlets are covering the issues making the most news, where they can really dig in.

Journalists have a natural inclination to cover the cause and solution of a problem. In this case, the cause was the financial crisis. Thus, a lot of banking coverage makes perfect sense. The solution was the bailout and stimulus; so again, it's sensible that this would be covered. The auto industry was a part of the bailout, and the two big bankruptcies were pretty newsworthy for obvious reasons. Again, new outlet's attention to this should not shock anyone.

So why not more on unemployment? Well, there isn't a lot you can say about it. You can analyze the trends a little, but at some point all a journalist can do is shrug. When the economy is bad, unemployment follows. That's economics.

Why didn't they dig into more human interest stories related to unemployment? For the same reasons the big national news outlets cover Congress in favor of state legislatures: that's local news territory. Pew's sample focused on major news sources. But even the local news outlets will have trouble with in-depth coverage of local issues these days, since their staffs are dwindling. They're also relying more heavily on the Associated Press, which gravitates towards national coverage. This same logic applies to why "Effect on State and Local Govt" and "Average Americans" wasn't higher.

So what about housing? That was a cause of the recession, yet it didn't come close to some of the other big ones. I'd argue that there probably wasn't a whole lot new to report on this during the first half of the year -- when the study was done. By January, the housing market was already scrapping the bottom. It has shown some signs of life lately, but there hasn't been that much news to really report on that front. The housing story was really 2007-2008.

Also predictable was that business coverage declined when things started getting better.

dow news pew.png

Anyone who has worked in journalism can tell you that good news isn't newsworthy. That chart elegantly proves this fact. The performance of the DOW is almost completely opposite the business news coverage.

Another finding that nobody should find shocking: the cities that got the most coverage:

cities pew.png

That is pretty overwhelming. 76% of business news coverage was from New York or Washington. Of course, that's arguably the same portion of important business news that came out of those cities on a national scale.

I understand Pew's concern here, as journalists don't seem to be spreading around the love equally for all aspects of business. But I would argue that most of the news covered in greater proportions effects even average Americans at least indirectly. Average Americans have bank accounts and/or credit cards, so the plight of banks should matter to them. It also affects the overall economy. The stimulus certainly was meant to help everyone as well. Also not mentioned was health care, which made up a huge portion of news coverage over the past six months and clearly affects all Americans. If Pew is faulting journalists for paying the most attention to the really big issues that affect all Americans, then I'm not sure I understand that criticism.