Few news events are as compelling as social unrest. Coverage of the World
Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle late last year was thick
among newspapers, television, radio and online news outlets, replete with
demonstrators, riot-control officers, world leaders and an apologetic
But the problem, according to some, was a glaring error of commission.
Rather than investigate the root issue of the proteststhe
pros and cons of international free tradethe media focused
its attention largely on the unrest taking place outside the negotiations.
One obvious reason for doing so was the spectacle's drama and
But a larger question is the degree to which the general media
can handle the more mundane, but arguably more important, stories
that involve basic economics. While many consider basic economics
to be relevant only for the business page, the fundamental nature
of economics is about the framing of choices concerning public
and private goods and services. As such, it would seem that economics
has relevance to many stories in a given news day.
But whether the media is equipped to handle those stories is
another question. In the case of the WTO protests, for example,
"few publications could describe what was really at stake"
with the negotiations, said Peter Hillan, former executive business
editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has been involved with
the issue of economic literacy for the better part of two decades,
most often at the K-12 level. Given the reach, impact and educational
nature of the news media, the Minneapolis Fed queried more than
150 journalists, former journalists and journalism school faculty
via e-mail and phone for their personal opinions regarding the
economics know-how of news organizations. About 40 responded to
the informal, open-ended survey. While no iron-clad conclusions
can be made, a number of interesting themes emerged.
Asked whether most reporters had a grasp of basic economics,
most respondents gave a qualified "no": Know-how of economics
was generally good at elite news organizations and among the business
and financial press. Below that upper crust, most believed that
economic literacy wanedsometimes badlyas you moved
down the media ladder in terms of market size, and was generally
suspect throughout broadcast news. Despite such criticism, there
was no clear answer regarding what, if anything, should be done.
In fact, a fair handful of respondents believed that poor understanding
of economics in the mediaeven if presentwas not a
terribly significant problem.
Don't know what we don't know
Not much is known about the media's understanding and ability to apply
basic economicsconcepts like cost-benefit, trade-offs, marginal
utility, opportunity costsor the effect of this literacy level on
the broader public.
A 1994 survey of journalists (oversampled with business reporters)
by Becker, Walstad and Watts found their economics knowledge was
similar to social studies teachers. The study, which also looked
at literacy levels of economics teachers at the high school and
university level, made little judgment as to whether journalists'
knowledge of economics was adequate, aside from broadly concluding
that "the transmission of economic thinking is less than ideal"
at many levels.
In 1987, the Ford Foundation and the Foundation for American
Communications (FACS) found that "informed coverage of economic
matters that now dominate civic and political affairs remains
measurably and markedly unfilled" by the media. Their report identified
a slew of sources for this problem, including an uneducated public,
poor reporter training, an adversarial relationship between business
and the press, and "an inherent inaccessibility" of economicsall
of which added up to a general lack of incentives for the media
to do a better job in this area. No other similar studies could
be found on the subject.
In this vein, the recent inquiry by the Minneapolis Fed was
done simply to gauge opinions on the matter within the industry
itself. Most respondents, though not all, believed that the understanding
of basic economics was good to excellent at news organizations
that specialize in financial and other business news, like The
Wall Street Journal, Barron's or CNBC.
Many also believed economics know-how was good on business desks
of the general news media. "We have reporters with tremendous
[economics] expertise" on the business desk, said Ray Marcano,
regional editor of the Dayton Daily News, and president
of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
But most respondents also said that knowledge of basic economics
below the elite media organizations and business desksthe
wide swath of remaining reporterstailed off considerably.
"It is my experience that most mainstream reporters have
little, if any, basic understanding of economic principles, terms
of art or even the fundamental underpinnings that would undoubtedly
inject clarity into their reporting," said Jim Gray, executive
director of SPJ and a former TV news anchor and editor for Market
News Service. As a result, "an overwhelming number of reporters
do not have a clue about the underlying causes of the economic
stories they are reporting."
"I think that most reporters have a very limited grasp
of economic principles. It just wasn't in their training, nor
do many have the right kind of aptitude," said Don Kimelman,
a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer with
25 years of journalism experience, and now with Pew Charitable
Trusts. "The exception, however, comes with business reporters,
most of whom have the right aptitude and many of whom have had
Economic literacy at the Los Angeles Times business
desk "is fairly high," according to Kathy Kristof, a
syndicated business columnist there. But she added, "There
are many people on metro desks who either don't understand, or
don't deal with, the economic implications of many political statements
and events, which lends a certain naivete to the reporting."
Andrew Cassel, a business columnist for The Philadelphia
Inquirer, said, "There's a general antipathy to economic
thinking in most newsrooms, mainly because of a widespread bias
that favors 'putting a face' on stories. The problem with economics
is that it tends to find relevant truths not in how people feel
about things, but in how they act. We tend to prefer the former
in our reporting, for obvious literary reasons."
Cassel said economics know-how in the media was a matter of
degree. "Large-market newspapers are perhaps better than
small ones, but that's not universal, as papers in New York and
Philadelphia have run series that raise serious questions about
their staffers' economic literacy." Many respondents were
quick to absolve reporters for any shortcomings in this area.
Poor grounding in economics, Gray said, was "not necessarily
[reporters'] fault, as reportersespecially in electronic
media in medium and small marketsdo not have specialty beats.
Most stations and smaller publishers cannot afford specialists."
"Smaller news shops simply can't afford that luxury [of
an economics specialist], so when economics becomes a story, you
see a general assignment reporter trying to handle it," said
Charles Davis, a journalism faculty member at the University of
Missouri-Columbia, and formerly a reporter for 10 years.
"Working in small markets is like being a flat rock thrown
in a perfect horizontal just over the water's surfaceyou
have neither the time nor the depth to stop and analyze what's
going on," said Frederick Blevens, print journalism coordinator
at Southwest Texas State University and formerly a reporter and
editor at several major metro newspapers. "In large markets,
such concepts are better presented because there's time and focus
to meet higher reader expectations."
TV newscasts were variously described as a "wasteland,"
"a disaster" and "a joke, but not a funny one."
But those in the business said few TV or radio news staffs have
the expertise or air time necessary to weave economic fundamentals
into news reports.
"Often there's not enough time and space for such material,
especially to explain it to the news audience, which may not understand
it much either," said Gordon Govier, news director for WNWC
Radio in Madison, Wis. "Outside of police and government
reporting, and the odd health beat, most broadcast reporters don't
specialize. ... There just isn't enough time when staff is limited."
"I'm not sure local newscasts are designed to deliver a
lot of in-depth stuff," said Jim Parker, executive producer
of FOX News Philadelphia, WTFX-TV. Television news is designed
for immediacy, and if it was a person's only news source, he added,
"you're missing out."
Is economics "special"? Should it be?
Respondents differed over whether economics is a specialized beat or
a fundamental content area for all reporters.
Gary Hill, a news director with KSTP-TV in Minneapolis and past
president of the Minnesota SPJ chapter, questioned whether economics
was "more broadly applicable" than other content areas. "Perhaps,"
said Hill, "but something like knowledge of medicine is [also]
very important to today's reporter. It reaches into areas like
food, exercise, insurance, politics, policy, pathogens, epidemics,
etc. It is very difficult to say what applies more often."
Economic literacy is "the same as scientific literacy or
math literacy or medical literacy or agricultural literacy in
terms of the sophistication level of a reporter," according
to Jack Willis, a reporter at a small Gannett daily for two decades
and currently the editorial adviser to the student newspaper at
the University of Oklahoma.
Veteran reporters "may not be sophisticated in those subjects
either, unless their assignments or beats have required them to
become knowledgeable or they have an appropriate background or
exposure to the subject," Willis said. "Does a Wall
Street Journal reporter know how to read a Fortune 500
financial statement? You bet. Does she know the differences in
a heifer and a steer ... or a Black Angus and a Hereford and a
Simmental? Perhaps not, unless she was raised on a farm."
But others argued that basic economics cuts across virtually
all news beats, and having a grasp of this subject was part of
a reporter's tool kit. "The greater importance that business
and economic news plays in our day-to-day lives dictates that
understanding the fundamentals has become more important,"
said Gray, the head of SPJ.
"All journalists should have a good working knowledge of
economic principles, regardless of the beat they cover-just as
they all should understand their local area's tax structure and
the fundamentals of government and business budgeting," said
Barry Paschal, a journalist of 17 years, and currently the opinions
editor at the Columbia County (Georgia) News-Tribune.
"Economic events have a compelling impact on nearly every
aspect of our lives," said Kristof of the Los Angeles
Times. "When you neglect or misunderstand that impact
when reporting, you mislead your readers. ... As a society we
can't afford lowest-common-denominator reporting."
"Many journalists in print, broadcast, cable and online
simply lack the curiosity to understand the value of bringing
economic thinking to their assignments," said Bill Barnhart,
a financial columnist of the Chicago Tribune. "Time
pressures make matters worse."
Jim Upshaw, a broadcast journalism professor at the University
of Oregon, said, "I believe there's an economic strata to
every beat, and therefore a potential economic element to almost
every news story." But many reporters suffer from "econ-intimidation,"
which shows up in poor story selection, said Upshaw, who worked
previously as a TV reporter with NBC and major-market stations
for 22 years.
Understanding economics does not necessarily mean that reporters
should "all be able to define marginal utility or opportunity
cost. What reporters ought to have is basic reasoning skills and
an introduction to a few fundamental economic concepts,"
said Jane Shaw, a former associate economics editor for Business
Week, and currently a senior associate with the Political
Economy Research Center, an environmental-political think tank.
"I am probably an economic imperialist," Shaw said.
"I would say that any public policy has ramifications that
can be better understood with an arsenal of basic economic tools"
like the role of incentives, the nature of unintended consequences
and the ability to anticipate supply and demand.
For example, Shaw said, a reporter seeing a decline in timber
production "should expect to see some impact such as increases
in the price of lumber. They may even be able to explain why we
see more steel beams and trusses in buildings under construction
today. Or if hydroelectric dams are breached to protect salmon
... reducing the amount of power that will be produced, reporters
should anticipate some impact on energy prices.
"In my opinion, these very straightforward ways of thinking
about policies are often ignored," Shaw said. "All too
often, the reporter is locked into a 'one side' vs. the 'other
side' method of reporting. Frequently the assumption is that one
side is good and one is bad." Hillan of the Mercury
News agreed. "When you look at the media there is
a huge problem, in my mind, of reporters' understanding of basic
fundamentals to ask the right question," Hillan said. "What
[reporters] lack is an authoritative view on subjects that are
very complex. ... Many of them are ill-equipped [but] pushed into
new areas every week." Compounding the problem is a news orientation
where "presentation overrides good facts or a shortage of facts,"
The lack of subject expertisein economics as well as other
subjectscan put the reporter at the mercy of the source,
several respondents said. "Generally, reporters accept what
they are told by economic experts," according to Bruce Rodgers,
a staff writer, columnist and former editor of PitchWeekly,
an alternative newspaper in Kansas City. Given the volume of political
rhetoric today, "unless a reporter has specific training
in economic matters, he is forced to do a he-she type of story
where the public has to determine the truth" of sources' opinions
"rather than the truthfulness of the data," Rodgers said.
Mere mention of basic economics, "and a lot of [reporters]
would look at you and say, 'Huh?'" said Parker FOX News.
As a result, cub reporters either avoid an economic angle for
a particular story, or simply "regurgitate verbatim"
what a source said. "The public doesn't gain anything from
Some argued that economic literacy is even worse among politicians,
a matter unknowingly complicated by reporters. "We have too
many people running for public office who promise to add services
without increasing taxes, or promise to cut taxes without cutting
services," said Dan Foley, a journalism professor at the
University of Tennessee. "Too many citizens are looking for
a free lunch, and elected officials are only too willing to promise
one." Without the proper training, he said, journalists "are
accurately reporting the nonsense that the politicians speak and
that we the public want to hear."
Gray of SPJ agreed. "With candidates for office throwing
around claims and counterclaims centering on economic successes
and failures," media play a central role in helping the public
"sort the wheat from the chaff."
Cassel of the Inquirer said, "There are placesthe
city of Philadelphia is a notable examplewhere really bad
economics dominates political thinking. The result is a city that
has been in decline for half a century, with little change forecast
because the underlying problems-high taxes, high costs, restrictive
markets-are still unaddressed."
Economics creep in the news hole
Thanks to the increasing popularity of business news, respondents said
economics is slowly creeping into other news beats and prominent spots
in the news hole. Barnhart of the Chicago Tribune said that business and
financial reporting has become more important in the news business and
an important new employment opportunity for reporters. As a result, it
"has made reporters more conscious of the need to understand economic
principles and to be conversant in the lingo of economics and business."
Several sources said that globalization has changed the job
description for many foreign correspondents. Once a beat dedicated
solely to politics, "the big stories in foreign news are
business," particularly in countries like India, China and
east Asia, said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a journalism professor at
Columbia (N.Y.) University.
Reporters of state and federal fiscal policy have always had
to deal with economics, but economics is increasingly relevant
to other beats as well, said Kimelman of Pew Charitable Trusts.
"There are no shortage of local disputes-from tax incentives
to attract new businesses to stadium construction-where reporters
would be well served to have a better grasp of economic principles,"
he said. "I think this is an important matter. There has
been a lag between the rise in importance of economic issues and
the training that journalists receive."
But the audience is the real driver regarding the amount of
economics in the news today, many pointed out. Sophisticated readers
will seek out highly literate news reporting on economic and other
issues, the argument went, and that sophistication plays itself
out down the media's literacy ladder. In many cases, news outlets
can only push so far into economics before the reader or viewer
turns the page, grabs for the remote or clicks over to a fantasy
football Web site. It's important for reporters to ask themselves
"whether the public is necessarily interested in that [economics]
angle," said Parker of FOX. "When times are good, [economics
coverage] doesn't matter as much. ... Most think, 'cost-schmost-benefit.
Who cares? What does it mean to me?'"
[Even the 1987 Ford/FACS study noted this audience dilemma:
"To put it bluntly, the public may want the media to talk
about economic matters ... but the demand for accurate analysis
of such affairs is likely to be dominated by the demands for entertaining
or personally useful angles on such affairs."]
"You want to respect the reader, but don't talk down to
them," said Byron Calame, a deputy managing editor of The
Wall Street Journal and president of the Society of American
Business Editors and Writers. Sometimes reporters and editors
rationalize that a reader or viewer would not be interested in
the economics of a particular news story, which Calame said makes
the economics angle "a little less compelling to worry about."
That mentality can become a crutch, according to Joshua Mills,
formerly a New York Times editor now directing the
master's program in business journalism at Baruch College-City
University of New York. "In a perfect world, journalists
would take the lead" on pressing economic issues like taxation,
Mills said, "but all too often they sense the public's lack of
interest and allow that to shape coverage."
But Marcano of the Dayton Daily News said reporters
have to be careful to talk in a language the reader understands,
removing jargon and attempting to simplify complex ideas or issues
in a limited amount of space. As a result, Marcano said, readers
with specialized background often believe reporting is incomplete
or misleading. "When you write for a broad audience, you
can't write as you would for a [professional or technical] journal,"
Marcano said, himself a former medical journalist.
One reason there aren't a lot of economists in the newsroom
is "because the message might be lost on a less sophisticated
audience," said William Pesek, a staff writer at Barron's.
"A writer who's not an economist by trade needs to write
a story at a level he or she understands. More likely, that will
hit closer to home for readers than a professional data person."
Pesek used his college calculus teacher as an example. "He
was brilliant and could calculate the square root of 5,456 in
his head. But when it came to teaching his students, he was useless.
He knew his stuff, but had no idea how to impart that knowledge
"Ultimately," said Cassel of the Inquirer, "people
get the newspapers and other media that they want. If more people
reacted to really bad economics in the media-with letters, PR,
lobbying editors, etc.it would likely get better."
The increasing popularity of the stock market and interest in
the general economywhether local, regional or nationalalso
appears to be creating a bit of hybrid reader, and it's not clear
whether or not media is the leader or follower of the economic
"Nowadays, construction workers are reading The Wall
Street Journal and calling me, asking questions about monetary
policy and the Phillips curve," Pesek said. "That's
a remarkable change. If economic literacy is lacking among journalists,
the American public will feel the pain."
A-B-C, not 1-2-3
Even if there were universal agreement on the extent of the problem (which
there wasn't), respondents differed on what, if anything, could be done
to improve media understanding and use of basic economics in news reporting.
For example, journalist training received much attention, with
respondents variously arguing that J-school curricula was keenly
geared to properly training young journalists on one hand, and
oblivious to core analytical skills and individual subject areas
(economics among them) on the other hand.
A number pointed out that economics was simply not a subject
to which journalists are instinctively drawn, mostly because of
its relation to math and statistics. Journalists tend to be "word
people, not number people," said Kimelman of Pew. Columbia's
Sreenivasan said journalists "wear it as a badge of honor
that they don't know numbers."
"Reporting action on a mass or ongoing level requires statistics,
which most newspaper people would rather avoid," Cassel said.
Foley said many of his Tennessee University students tell him,
"If I could do math, I wouldn't be in journalism school."
Others pointed out that the economics profession offers a journalist
little help with the translation from conceptual framework to
real-world relevance. "I may be biased, but I think the problem
lies with the economics profession," said Joseph Rebello,
senior economics writer for Dow Jones News Wires. "I have
a bachelor's degree in economics, so I know that economics is
the art of finding a complicated way of expressing a simple concept.
Economic understanding would be greatly enhanced if economic policymakers
simply learned to use plain English when making public statements."
Upshaw, from the University of Oregon, said that the "current
trend toward lowbrow news-you-can-use actually could enlarge the
news role of economic factors if patient, plain-talking economists
visited newsrooms more often."
Constant deadlines and small newsholes also influence how much
economics is included in an average story. For most media outlets,
"there's a rush to keep pumping things out," said Parker
of FOX. Others agreed, saying reporters face increasing pressure
to crank out more copy faster, a condition exacerbated by the
"always on" of the Internet.
"Once in the office, there's a lot of 'feed the beast'
mentality," said Hillan of the Mercury News.
"That comes as a cost" of eating away the time a reporter
might otherwise use to cultivate new sources or do background
readinglearning that should lead to more thorough reporting
at all levels, he said.
In fact, most respondents seemed to think that any economics
knowledge gap is best closed by hands-on reporting. "A lot
[of reporters] understand [economics] instinctively, with a bit
of experience and mentoring and learning," said Calame, from
Jim Parker, a business reporter with the The Post and
Courier of Charleston, S.C., has 20 years of experience,
"yet nearly all I learned about business was on the job."
One of the first banking stories Parker ever did, "I thought loans
were liabilities'you're giving out money, right?'and
deposits were assets'people are giving the bank money, right?'"
Several others pointed out that they might not be able to define
certain economic terms, but have used or applied them as a matter
of instinct. "I'm sure I did without being fully conscious
of it," said Edward Kean, chief financial correspondent with
In that vein, a number of respondents questioned whether economic
illiteracy in the media was a real problem. Calame said he was
not "hugely worried" about economic literacy among individual
reporters, pointing out that reporters increasingly work in teams,
"sharing the expertise that resides in [different] people."
"Economic literacy is a good thing," said Calame, but
he cautioned "not to make it the end-all, be-all. ... It
is not necessary for a large number of business reporters to have
those tools highly polished." It was more important that
reporters have resources on and off staff that can fill knowledge
gaps and can "get up to speed in an hour" to write a
news article, Calame said.
"The level of understanding among journalists about economic
matters isn't quite so dire that a literacy drive is warranted,"
said Rebello of Dow Jones. "It's always helpful to have as
much prior knowledge as possible for any subject you're researching.
But it isn't essential. A good reporter will nearly always be
able to learn the essentials quickly. ... As a reporter, you have
the luxury of calling almost anyone and demanding an instant tutorial
on the subject of your choice."
Blevens of Southwest Texas State, added, "I don't know
the consequences of such deficiencies, but the last time our democracy
was threatened, two low-level cop reporters started pulling the
string that eventually hung a president. Somehow, consequential
stories get out and the job gets done, whether the public fully
understands or not."
"I openly grant the idea that reporters are economically
illiterate," said Jim Parker of FOX. The real problem lies
with reporters who "are afraid to use those three words:
I don't know. ... It's more important that you can say, 'I don't
understand,' and 'where do I go to get the answer.'
"I don't think the answer is in teaching reporters all
this stuff," Parker said. "The difference at the end of the day
is that a good reporter will acknowledge the shortcomings and
properly fill the gap."