A friend of mine recently commented that if the media would stop pushing all the bad economic news, then perhaps the economy would rebound.
He hit on an interesting quandary. On the one hand, a responsible press can’t very well avoid the bad economic news that we have these days. The problems are real. And if you try to tell people a rose is beautiful, even if it’s obviously shriveled up and rotted, then you surely aren’t going to gain anyone’s trust as an objective observer, no matter how much everyone loved the rose when it bloomed. You must be truthful, even if the truth hurts. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if you flipped through newspapers from the 1930s and found reporters cheerleading about how great the economy was? A press is supposed to document the time. And when times are bad, coverage should reflect that.
But covering the economy is a tricky thing, because the markets are tied closely to our collective psychology, which is certainly unstable right now. And putting a mirror to the problem, while necessary, makes us shriek. The way we perceive ourselves, and our time, is part of the economic story. And the media — though they may try to be dispassionate observers — ultimately play a part in shaping that perception.
Another complication is that when it comes to the economy, we are herd animals. One good clap of the hands can make a herd run, even if there’s no real threat. Or, a herd can follow its leader straight to the lions’ den, oblivious to warning signs.
We can now recognize that we were oblivious to the fiscal warning signs for many years. On the flip side, now that things have gone bad, we’re horribly skittish and ready to jump at anything that moves.
The press is right to report on the nation’s fears and uncertainty. But in doing so, the media also generate anxiety. That’s obvious, too. And we must recognize that the national press is, itself, like a herd, a massive bunch following a few leaders. Just because a story has national attention at the moment doesn’t mean that it is being covered in a thoughtful way. In fact, the more a story is covered, the lazier some organizations get, particularly on television. Think about it, a storyline gets established, and then much of the press clings to it for as long as they can squeeze commercial minutes out of it. The incessant repetition carries a palpable desperate quality. Cable networks, in particular, abandon actual news gathering in favor of open laptop, round-table forums to determine “what does it all mean?” We all know they don’t know, but we watch anyway.
Solid reporting is desperately needed now. But the big papers are dying out. And TV has become the home of fiery demagogues, whose ultimate purpose is not their sanctimonious political rants, but simply to hold the attention of their target audiences for the advertisers.
When it comes to today’s harsh economy, this type of pontificating and soothsaying news culture is not helpful.
So, it’s important to recognize what constitutes good journalism in these tough times. The best media outlets present statistics soberly. They offer some historical context, but they avoid the crystal ball. Instead of predicting what’s next with the markets, they look in detail at what is happening now, focusing on how individuals are affected by market changes. They put faces to the stories.
And while financial advisers always encourage investors to have a diversified portfolio to weather market downturns, it also seems appropriate to have a diversified portfolio when it comes to getting your news.
If you’re just looking at one source, you’re only looking at one animal in the herd. If you settle for this, you’re going to have a tough time seeing the herd’s movements.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
The economy isn't bad. We're just returning to simpler values not based on buying tons of crap we don't need everyday. Some people are having a harder time adjusting than others...those are the people who are still addicted to the crap lifestyle.