The Region

On the (Economic Literacy) Campaign Trail: Finding, understanding and telling the story behind the story.

A review of the second annual Supply, Demand & Deadlines workshop for journalists.

Kathy Cobb | Contributing Writer

Published September 1, 2002  | September 2002 issue

Would the Enron story have been different if reporters had probed beyond news releases that touted the company's glowing performance? Would public policy play out differently if reporters took a different tack or talked to different sources? Would public funding for a new sports stadium be supported by taxpayers if the hidden costs were uncovered?

These and other questions were discussed in late June in Minneapolis when about 30 mostly Midwest print and broadcast journalists gathered at the University of Minnesota to learn more about economics—and ultimately how to better report business and public policy news.

The two-day workshop, a joint project of the Minnesota Journalism Center of the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, was the second of what is becoming an annual event. The program initially grew out of a session for and about journalists as part of the Economic Literacy Symposium held at the Minneapolis Fed in spring 1999. In fall 2000 the first workshop for journalists was held near Washington, D.C., and the national reporters who attended that program became the core advisers for the course. (Events of Sept. 11 caused the cancellation of the fall 2001 program.)

Participants had the opportunity to learn from a few of those advisers. David Wessel, chief economics correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist's New York Bureau Chief, Matthew Bishop, led off the program with what they've learned over years of experience.

Wessel gave journalists some nuts and bolts about writing business and public policy stories: where to find data and information, developing sources and, above all, understanding economists. "It's our job to explain what economists think," Wessel said. He shared his list of rules to write by, including the importance of getting comfortable handling numbers. "It's hard to write about business and economics if you're afraid of numbers," he said. Allowing that reporters can always tell different stories about the same event, Wessel reminded participants that "we owe readers our best judgment. ..."

Bishop walked participants through The Economist's reporting of the Enron story, admitting that, overall, reporters could have done a better job on Enron. He pointed out that if reporters had dug a little deeper, Enron's shaky position would have been apparent far sooner. He suggested that reporters always need to ask, "What's the hidden cost?" And he reminded participants: "You need to know if you're getting smoke and mirrors" in an interview.

But before reporters can get to the bottom of a story, they need to have a grasp of basic economic principles, said Arthur Rolnick, Minneapolis Fed senior vice president and director of Research. He shared the following eight principles of economics that reporters need to keep in mind:

  • On average, people behave in their own best interest.

  • There is no such thing as a free lunch.

  • The cost of something is what you give up to get it.

  • A country's standard of living depends on its ability to produce goods and services.

  • Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.

  • Trade can make everyone better off.

  • Governments can sometimes improve market outcomes.

  • Money causes inflation.

Keynote speaker Alan Blinder focused on how a reporter can twist a story either unwittingly or intentionally. Blinder, now professor of macroeconomics and monetary policy economics at Princeton University, was vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers in the 1990s. He talked via satellite about his experiences with the media during his time in Washington. "The selection and interpretation of stories are the inevitable role of the media," said Blinder, adding that "even when reporters are scrupulous in reporting, they often can alter the policy outcome." Blinder said leaking stories to the media is a way of life in Washington. In describing the "leak" game, he chided reporters to learn to discriminate and to ask, "Am I being used by the leaker?"

On the workshop's second day, participants had the opportunity to practice their craft and prepare a story based on the economics of tariffs. The exercise was critiqued by other members of the media workshop advisory group—V.V. Chari, economics professor at the University of Minnesota and a Minneapolis Fed consultant; Dan Sullivan, Cowles Chair of Media Management and Economics at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication; economics reporter Mike Meyers, Minneapolis Star Tribune; and Chris Worthington, managing editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press.