The known unknowns of business journalism

February 14, 2011

By Anya Schiffrin

Journalists love thinking about journalism so I was happy recently to spend some time reading 18th and 19th century Indian newspapers, part of the collection housed at the Jawaharal Nehru Library in New Delhi.   With my new book BAD NEWS: How America’s financial press missed the story of the century just published, I was looking at early examples of business and economics coverage.  In addition to its outdoor canteen that serves samosas and masala chai for 25 cents, the Nehru library has a formidable collection with everything from old communist party papers and the Bombay Spectator to the famous “Hickey’s Bengal Gazette or the  original Calcutta General Advertiferand the missionary newspaperFriend of India.These short papers carried all sorts of amusing advertisements on the front page. Instead of classified ads for cars, they advertised carriages imported from London, bolts of indigo and all sorts of scary medicines. There were also plenty of announcements for clipper ships bound for China and looking for cargo consisting of opium.

News dispatches came in the form of long letters from anonymous contributors and began with various disclaimers : “As the writer seems of considerable intelligence and well acquainted with  the subject, we give it insertion but by no means adopt the opinions which he advocates” or  “We have received no authentic accounts from Rangoon since our last issue but there are numerous letters and reports afloat amongst the Mughul merchants in the town indicative of a state of disquiet among the foreign traders.”

It was refreshing to see journalists admit that they weren’t really sure of the information they were providing.  Business journalism got its start in the 16th century with newspapers in several cities including Antwerp and London that largely consisted of lists of prices known as “currents” (which included prices of money, commodities and securities) and “bills of entry” which recorded the arrival and departure of cargo ships and the commodities they carried. John J. McCusker is an authority on these.

Few today would accept the vagaries and obvious imprecision of those centuries-old dispatches. Yet reading recent press coverage of the parlous state of the U.S. economy, I often have the feeling that reporters and economists are just as confused today as they were in West Bengal in the 18th century. A recent New York Times story about new job numbers, showing that only 36,000 jobs were created  but that the unemployment rate fell from 9.4% to 9.0%, left me perplexed, especially when I turned to Bob Herbert’s column saying the numbers didn’t really make sense. Floyd Norris also offered a partial explanation of why the numbers often aren’t reliable.

Media critics and academics give many reasons for why economic reporting often falls short. They note that economists are often uncertain as to where the economy is headed, and that reporters lack the knowledge to analyze the data they receive. Writing a short piece to a tight deadline means there often isn’t the time and space to delve into deeper economic questions. And then there is the question of “cognitive capture” (a term coined by economist Willem Buiter) which Financial Times editor Gillian Tett has used to describe the fact that journalists often take on the worldview of the people they cover. In the case of business journalism this means the view that markets work well and that U.S.-style capitalism is the best in the world.

Today’s business journalism is more sophisticated than it was 200 years ago. And the financial crisis has produced some superb reporting from people like Michael Hudson, Gretchen Morgenson, and the late Mark Pittman. But since my book has come out I’ve heard many stories of journalists being told by their editors to downplay their warnings of how badly the economy is doing.  If business journalists want to do an even better job, they would  serve their readers well if they could be a bit more critical and follow their instincts as to what seems wrong, distorted or missing—even if it means questioning the conventional wisdom.

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