Encouraging signs of analytic journalism at UC-Berkeley J-School
January 25th, 2006 by JTJ

From the Nieman posting….

How not to cover the economy
SHOWCASE | January 23, 2006

A fed-up Berkeley economics professor joins up with the J-school to
teach journalists and would-be journalists how to cover – and even more
emphatically, how not to cover – economic news.

By Dan Froomkin

Brad DeLong – the Berkeley economics professor whose popular blog includes more than a bit of media criticism
– launched a fascinating experiment last week: He joined forces with
Journalism School Professor Susan Rasky to teach a class for would-be
journalists called “Covering the Economy.”

In DeLong’s hands, the class might be better titled “How Not to
Cover the Economy.” As DeLong writes in the syllabus, he took up the
challenge “because he is being gradually driven insane by stories in
major newspapers and other outlets.”

DeLong, who was a senior Treasury Department official in the Clinton
administration, has long been the scourge of sloppy economic reporting
in his blog. He’s also been a contributor to

And although his official audience is made up of Berkeley students,
anyone who covers the economy would be well advised to follow along
online. In fact Rasky says several established Bay-area journalists
have already asked for – and received – permission to sit in.

The syllabus, reading list and what DeLong calls “after-action reports” will be available on the class’s Web site. And DeLong will be providing regular updates to as well.

DeLong and Rasky write in their syllabus:

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?”

Among DeLong’s horror stories: This November 4, 2005 New York Times story: “Senate Passes Budget With Benefit Cuts and Oil Drilling,” By Robert Pear with Carl Hulse.

The first paragraph:

The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a sweeping five-year plan
to trim a variety of federal benefit programs and to allow drilling for
oil and natural gas in a wilderness area of Alaska, increasing the
chances that the energy industry and Alaska officials will achieve a
long-sought goal. The budget bill, the most ambitious effort to curb
federal spending in eight years, was approved by a vote of 52 to 47.
Five Republicans opposed the measure; two Democrats voted for it.
Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, the chairman of the
Senate Budget Committee, said, “This bill is a reflection of the
Republican Congress's commitment to pursue a path of fiscal
responsibility.” It will, Mr. Gregg said, reduce the deficit and save
roughly $35 billion over the next five years…”

DeLong explains why it’s a horror:

The Federal government currently spends money at the rate of $2.6
trillion a year. Total incomes in the entire American economy are about
$12 trillion a year. Saving $35 billion over five years means that you
are saving $7 billion a year–0.3% of federal spending; 0.06% of GDP.
Out of a federal budget that spends $9,000 per person per year, Judd
Gregg is saving $27 a year.

Thus reading a lead like that makes Brad DeLong, at least, foam at
the mouth: phrases like “sweeping,” “ambitious,” “commitment,” and
“fiscal responsibility” simply have no place here–especially since
[the author] does not give his readers any of the numbers needed as
reference points to assess the magnitude of the Senate's action.

DeLong argues that there were three responsible ways to report this
story: By writing  that Judd Gregg had labored mightily and brought
forth a mouse; by noting that the Republicans were so eager to be
associated with “deficit reduction” that they were only announcing the
spending side of their budget proposal – and delaying the announcement
of the tax side (which, it turned out, would more than offset their
spending cuts); or by writing about the institutional factors that make
it so hard to cut the budget these days.

Rasky says she is thrilled that DeLong is joining her. And she credits a grant from the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education (described here
by Katharine Q. Seelye in the May 26, 2005, New York Times), which
calls in part for improving subject-matter education for journalists by
having journalism school classes team-taught by experts from throughout
the university.

The first six weeks of the class will be spent “looking at how the
bread-and-butter economic news is covered and how it should be covered…
During the next six weeks, we will focus more closely on four or five
big economic trends,” the syllabus promises.

Following that, if there’s time, DeLong hopes to “examine the work
done by some extremely good and skilled practitioners of journalism”
such as William Greider, John M. Berry, Greg Ip, Paul BlusteinJulie Rovner,  and Rebecca Smith.

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