Wednesday, January 18, 2006

When Oh When Will We Have a Better Press Corps?

Apparently, when students from this class get jobs:

Covering the Economy: The Story Behind the Numbers
Journalism 298, Spring 2006:
J-School B1
2:30-4 Tuesday
10-12 Wednesday
Susan Rasky
J. Bradford DeLong

You are all guinea pigs.

We have never done this before. Neither has anybody else as far as we know.

In fact, it is not at all clear to us what "this" is or will be. But a number of our colleagues in economics and journalism think we’re on to something and want to help. You’ll be hearing from them in person, over the speaker phone and in Washington, D.C. over spring break.

Susan Rasky is here to get people ready to cover the U.S. and world economy for the wire services, for daily newspapers and websites and for week-in-review style pieces in print and broadcast.

Brad DeLong is here for two reasons: first, because Susan thinks he has something to offer; second, because he is being gradually driven insane by stories in major newspapers and other outlets. He’ll share some bad budget reporting from his bag of journalistic atrocities in the first class.

We both start with this premise: Nobody goes into journalism to write bad stories that mislead their readers and omit or downplay the important news of the events that they are covering. Journalists, especially daily journalists have a very difficult job. They are under ferocious deadline pressure. They are beat reporters--which means that they cannot afford to alienate their sources too far, for they have to go back to them again and again. They are dealing with complicated and subtle issues. And at least half the people they talk to are telling them subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lies.

So what has gone wrong? And how can journalists--and those among their sources who are interested in public education and in raising the level of the debate--make things go right?

We plan to spend about the first six weeks looking at how the bread-and-butter economic news is covered and how it should be covered. What the standard statistical releases suggest about whether the economy is going up, down, or sideways--and what "up," "down," and "sideways" mean.

During the next six weeks, we will focus more closely on four or five big economic trends from which you will select story projects for publication or broadcast:

1. Pensions and Social Security - who pays for retirement.
2. Health Insurance, Drugs, and Medicare.
3. The Government: Taxing and Spending.
4. Trade, Jobs, and Earnings

Students with approved Washington reporting agendas will travel there over Spring break (week of March 27 April 2) to interview sources and meet journalistic and economic contacts.)

Tuesday classes will be Brad’s informal lectures on the economy; his readings will be posted on our JSchool intranet and on his website.

Wednesday classes will be discussion of readings, sources and story project planning and pitching. During the first few weeks we’ll also do some timed writing exercises on the indicators just to keep your fingers warm.

Guests will be scheduled for both sessions. We’re still working on the final line-up.


This is a fantastic idea. The first part of the course--understanding the major pieces of economic news--is a course that we (as a profession) ought to develop for undergraduates to take after intermediate macro. Combining it with longer term issues and focusing it on journalism are great additions. And the instructors invite you to play along at home.

6 comments:

Arun Khanna said...

We need Executive MBA programs for journalists.

Anonymous said...

Shorter Brad DeLong: "Why oh why can't you seee it's Bush's fault?"

Tim Worstall said...

I’m sorry, but I disagree. This is an absolute disaster.

What will happen to people like me? Those with half an understanding of matters economic and half an ability to write? Once journalists, who have the whole of the latter also have even half of the former then I’ll be out on my ear.

Save jobs! Specifically, Save My Job! Ban journalists from learning economics! You know it makes sense!

And another thing, if journalists do stop making economic clangers what are we all going to blog about?

Arun Khanna said...

Tim Worstall said: "Ban journalists from learning economics! You know it makes sense!"
I think you are assuming economics taught=economics learned. If only that was true. After such classes, we are likely to have journalists who have half an understanding of economics. I think the hope (after such classes) is that journalists will have a full understanding of very basic economics.

Nathan Kaufman said...

You will probably have a job.

Economics does not strike me as the most absolute of all fields. Variation exists. People seem to enjoy debate, discussion, and alternative hypothesis. Economics is also built on a lot of assumptions. There should be a lot of work verifying historical assumptions and developing current assumptions.

Consider the employment-to-population ratio, or labor force participation ratio. If journalists report this along with the unemployment rate, this might prompt a mainstream, journalism debate to explain the employment-to-population ratio. Some might argue that recent trends in the ratio are okay and good for the economy, and others might argue that recent trends are a portent of bad things to come. Others might say it depends.

Roland Patrick said...

Will the students who dare to challenge Brad's wisdom be booted out of the class?