The Media And The Economy
NEAL CONAN, host:
We Americans worry about the economy a lot. You don't need a poll to tell you that. Just listen to what people talk to you about. But if you look at the newspaper or turn to your favorite news channel, you may not get that message. According to a study released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, news coverage of the economy doesn't always keep up with public interest and concern.
We're going to talk about how and why in just a moment, but first we want to ask you a question. What's the story you want to hear about the economy and why? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Which part of the economic slowdown do you think is undercovered?
Joining us here in the Newseum is Mark Jurkowitz, he's an associate director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. I think he's "the" associate director, in fact, and thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. MARK JURKOWITZ (Associate Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism): My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And the study you released on Monday is called the "Tracking the Economic Slowdown." As you looked at it, what surprised you?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Well, there are a couple of things. First of all, it's a very complicated story to cover the economy for most media outlets in this country. It's not a simple story. It's not necessarily right in front of your face. There's a lot of complex data to look at. So we found two things that we thought were particularly sort of fascinating. One is that that the public's interest in this story seemed to be greater than and supersede the media's interest in this story...
CONAN: By how much?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Consistently. Well, to give you measures, and these are a little bit apples and oranges, but we can tell you that there's some polling data that's in our report that suggests that if you go back to, let's say to the last quarter of 2007, and on a consistent basis, at least a quarter of Americans were saying they were following the story very closely, which is, you know, for the economy, that's not a particularly high number, but for issues in general, it is.
At that time, by our measures, about three percent of all the media coverage that we examined on a regular basis was actually about the economy. And during the course of 2008, coverage did spike. There were number of things that happened. There were polls indicating that now the public - the American public thought the economy was a bigger worry, for example, in the Iraq War. So coverage did essentially double or so during 2008, but so to(ph) to the degree of public interest and concern. And so it's fair to say, really, that that we have polling that suggests that the public actually follow the economic story slightly more closely than they even follow the presidential campaign.
But in that same period of time, the media has spent about five times as much at time and energy on the presidential campaign as they did on the economy. So that's - that's disconnect number one.
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: The other piece of it that's sort of fascinating is when you look at the logistics of trying to cover a story like this, is that it's very hard to tell it in real time. Meaning that, you know, when the media are reporting on something, events on the ground, the actual economic conditions can have change. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one is that the economic beat is very dependent on government data, government reports, GNP, GDP...
CONAN: Why you can't tell you're in a recession until the government static says you're in a recession.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: And by the time you tell people that you're in recession, you may not be in a recession. Interestingly, the one aspect of this crisis which has unfolded over the last two years that was really covered in real time, is pretty easy to figure out. Gas prices. Even journalists can drive by their gas station...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JURKOWITZ: And see the 4.12 is now 4.19 for a gallon of unleaded regular.
CONAN: Now, one of the most interesting parts of the study that I saw was that different media covered different parts of the economic slowdown. For example, TV reporters really focus on those gas prices.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: That's absolutely true. And first and foremost, you know, some - what we called media sectors, parts of the media cover the story in general more robustly than others. And here's an argument for the good-old, vanishing, economically-beleaguered old media. When you look at the trajectory of this story, the media sectors that spent the most time and energy on it were newspapers, number one, and many of them still have good-size business staff that are paying attention.
The evening newscasts, losing viewership and aging viewership, but still paying attention, and also news radio, in the various forms that we looked at it. What you didn't get much coverage of the economy on, for example, was commercial talk radio, because there's not necessarily a sharp political issue, a wedge issue to drive the conversation, and also cable news, which is fixated on the presidential race but not on the economy.
When it actually came to elements of the economic story, we did find different sectors paying different levels of attention. The housing crisis, the housing part of the economic crisis was very much a newspaper story. And the gas and energy crisis part of the economic slowdown was very much a network news story. It's a good TV story. It's an easy TV story to tell.
CONAN: One question, and then we'll get to phone calls, and again, what stories do you think are being undercovered - economic stories? But when you see a story on TV about John McCain visiting an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, does that count as a presidential coverage story or does that count as an economic story or does that count as both?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: If it's primarily about John McCain talking about the economy, that covers - that counts as a part of the presidential campaign. And then, not to get too far inside the sausage factory, we actually divide those campaign stories into what we call sub-stories so we can pull out how much of the campaign coverage has actually been about the economy.
CANON: And how much of the campaign coverage has been about the economy?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: A decent amount - but the problem is it varies wildly from week to week. Put it this way, there's never been a week in which coverage of economic issues and the debate between McCain and Obama came anywhere near the amount of coverage Obama got for his trip to the Middle East and Europe.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And we'll begin with Ann(ph), Ann calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.
ANN (Caller): Yeah, hi. I wanted to comment on - I would like to hear more economic news related to mistakes that individuals have made, rather than big, you know, industries, like blaming the banks for putting out - giving loans that people without putting money down when that should be, like, rule number one in economics. Go buy a house, you can't put anything down for it, and, you know, learning things from people's mistakes. I would like to hear more stories covering, you know, irresponsible behavior versus...
CONAN: Any way to draw out from your data how much is about institutional news and how much is about individuals?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: I would say anecdotally that we think that we saw basically a lot of triggers for media coverage in the institutional news. When you saw the countrywide story, for example, develop...
CONAN: The bank that gave out an enormous number of high-risk loans.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Exactly. That holds my mortgage, by the way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Thank you. But I still have my house. In late 2007 was one of the stories that really did trigger. We find a lot of institutional players - the media key often(ph), Ben Bernanke and the Fed, the president, big banks, Fannie Mae and things like that. It's interesting. Her point is, you know, what about the issue of individual responsibility, which was kind of part the political debate but not really part of the story.
When the media tells a story about individuals and regular people, they tend to focus on the suffering and the hardship that they may be in because they lost their home, maybe because they couldn't afford it in the first place. It's not usually a responsibility story. It's usually a victimization story.
CONAN: Because they keep hoping those people will buy the newspaper and watch TV. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off, Ann.
ANN: I was just going to say that I think that those stories where, you know, where they're showing people who are suffering, people don't learn from those as much. I think if they show people more who made, you know, irresponsible decisions, that would be more helpful for the public because they would learn and say, you know what, I shouldn't do those things. That's risky behavior and look at the consequences.
CONAN: Even the responsible can suffer sometimes, Ann. But thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. And let me ask, if there's an enormous gap between the public's interest in economic news and the amount of economic news, why isn't the Wall Street Journal cleaning up?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Well, the Wall Street Journal does pretty well for itself. Of course, it's in an interesting transition. It has a brand-new owner. And one of the things that was kind of interesting about the early phases of the Wall Street Journal under Rupert Murdoch is that they sort of reoriented their coverage a little bit. ..TEXT: We did a study some months back that looked and saw that they were actually getting more involved in sort of traditional newspapering issues and traditional topics such as elections and campaigns and a little less on what has traditionally been their franchisers' economic news. There's a sense they've shifted back a little bit, but we're still waiting for the new Journal to sort of emerge.
CONAN: But isn't this an economic - I mean, you can just look at those numbers and say, this is an opportunity.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: It is an opportunity. And the one thing we need to say just methodologically is we look at the front pages of newspapers. Obviously, business sections in newspapers cover the story day in and day out, whether or not they're being read. We wanted to see really, you know, to the extent to which it was getting really into the mainstream and people even with a casual interest would have a chance to read about it.
CONAN: A lot of parrots read the bottom of the business section.
(Soundbite of laughter)
A question from here in the Newseum.
BRUCE (Audience Member): My name is Bruce, and you just hit the point that I wanted to make, and mine was that the media is being consolidated under very few owners, Rupert Murdoch being one of them. And don't you think that is a major reason for the poor coverage because the people who own the media want to make our opinions go on a certain direction? I mean, it's been obvious to me that what's happening right now as we speak was obvious in 19 - or is it in 2004 and 2005 that this was going to happen? By all the decisions that were being made, how the economy was being run, the cheap prices on houses or on housing interest, et cetera, set us up for what's happening today. And that was totally obvious.
CONAN: Sounds like you should run - start a newspaper.
BRUCE: I can't write.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JURKOWITZ: You don't have to.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: No comment about the people who do write the newspapers, yes.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: No, just find the people who can. You know, just to mention the issue. The issue of media consolidation and the megacorporations that run much of the news media or own a lot of the news media, we know about that. But it's also fair to say that at this point, a lot of those structures are changing. I mean, the economic turmoil within the media industry, and particularly the newspaper industry, has really changed ownership models. Some of the biggest public companies and media players - the Tribune Company, Knight Ridder, others are divesting themselves of their properties, and there's some sort of atomization of these big constellations of media.
The one thing that I think you can't argue about, that you can say unarguably, is that frankly, there isn't a newspaper in America that hasn't had to hand out pink slips in the last couple of years, and that's affecting coverage across the board. I mean, the places that traditionally go first are things like foreign bureaus, Washington bureaus, but certainly it's eroded on some level probably the staffing in the business sections.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the question. Appreciate it. We're talking with Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, about how the media cover economic news. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
And just to follow up, there is one suggestion, at least as I read it in your survey, that suggests that increased media coverage does increase the amount of concern in the public.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Yes, that's right. And, you know, we wanted to ask the question. I mean, former Senator Graham got some ink in his campaign for saying we were in a mental recession, essentially, saying, basically, the recession's kind of a - there's a psychological component, it's in the public's mind.
One of the things we were interested in trying to find out is did the media create this? You know, is this a - you know, there's a lot of behavior that comes from uncertainty and then that, you know, sort of further facilitates the problem. How much of this is a media invention and how much of it, sort of, you know, drove public behavior?
The truth is, our data, when we matched the stories with the polling data, suggested the public was concerned about this before the media were, but at a time there is no doubt there are correlations when media coverage spikes, concern spikes. In 2008, coverage of the economy went up dramatically. In January of 2008, 28 percent of the American public thought the economy was in poor shape. By March, 56 percent said so. It's moving in lockstep with coverage. When coverage of gas prices gets to supersede every other story, people started to see gas prices as the biggest component of the economy. So we do see a relationship here. And this is not - we don't think a media generated or invented crisis, but certainly higher media coverage creates higher anxiety or at least coincides with it.
CONAN: Let's get Adam on the line, Adam calling us from Cleveland, Ohio.
ADAM (Caller): Hello.
ADAM: I'd like to see a lot more international coverage, especially with the growing markets in China and India. I think that their influence - because they're even growing now, and the headlines that you get now is, oh, they're growing in China and India is developing. But I wanted to know when we're actually going to focus specifically on what is developing over there, as opposed to just a general sense of some kind of activity. Now there's investors and a niche people who are interested in that type of thing. But should that be on the average Joe's scope? And I'll just take my answer off the air.
CONAN: OK, Adam. Thanks very much. You were mentioning earlier that foreign bureaus are the first to get sliced when the media is suffering from lack of advertising. Is that affecting international coverage in a business sense?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: It certainly is. And international coverage in general, of which business is going to be a component of. We know we live in a global economy. We know and we've seen, obviously, for example, foreign stock markets have an impact on the U.S. stock market. We know how much of the energy problems we have depends on the flow of oil and from where oil comes, and, you know, I think we've got a significant problem in general with the issue of overseas coverage.
We know - the paper that I used to work at, the Boston Globe, for 10 years, shuttered its last foreign bureau a couple years ago. That's happening everywhere. We monitored the amount of foreign coverage last year. And in 2007, for example, the Iraq War, Pakistan, and the situation in Iran, were the only three foreign hot spots that really generated what you would call significant coverage. Undercovered: Russia, China.
CONAN: And would I be wrong to suggest that the international business story that gets the most attention is those American jobs that do get sent overseas, call centers, that sort of thing?
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Yeah, and that's because that becomes a political issue, gets inserted on the debate, and again, it's easily translated. Covering the economy and explaining it to people in its many forms is a complex story - that's one that's more visceral.
CONAN: Let's see if we get one last call in, Sarah, Sarah, with us from Waukegan in Illinois.
SARAH (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SARAH: I've got of couple of questions. I am not sure how they're related, maybe you can tell me. But I want to see more focus on how much - about the record corporate profits in the oil companies and also in utility companies. For example, here in Illinois, they deregulated the electric utilities and so our bills have skyrocketed. And they're saying they have to do that but they don't have to do it because they're making record profits also. And I hear some reasons given for high food prices and high gas prices may be speculation, and I don't really know what that means, but I think it's really important to see - to know how that factors in, and I want to hear more about it.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: Well, that's a fascinating point and the truth is, the media - there are a lot of theories thrown about as to what's happened, and the media are not necessarily great at getting to the bottom of it to the extent that we've had a discussion of why oil went, you know, to close to 150 a barrel or whatever it ultimately went up to. You know, we've never had - the Democrats say it's speculation. The Republicans say it's something else. It's been part of the political debate. I don't think coverage has done a particularly good job of looking at the various components and the reality of what is actually causing the problem.
CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
SARAH: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Mark Jurkowitz, thanks very much for your time.
Mr. JURKOWITZ: My pleasure.
CONAN: Mark Jurkowitz is associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and he joined us here at the Newseum. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, who is John McCain? And the next part of our summer movie series, your favorite "Femme Fatale." This Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.