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Ohio job fair in May. (AP)

Why journalists need to keep telling the sad stories of the American recession, and how to do it better

ASK THIS | August 09, 2011

As long as unemployment remains at crisis levels, reporters need to keep documenting the toll of the recession through the personal stories of those who've lost work. Don Peck, author of a new book on our pinched post-recessionary future, suggests several ways to do that more effectively and has a few story ideas to boot.

Don Peck is features editor at the Atlantic, and the author of a new book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. The book is an outgrowth of his 2010 Atlantic cover story, How a New Jobless Era Will Transform Americawhich emerged as one of the must-read articles of the American recession.

In an interview with the Nieman Watchdog Project, Peck encouraged reporters to keep telling the stories of the unemployed, and shared some ideas that daily journalists could use to better chronicle the true toll of the recession in their communities. He suggested different facets of the unemployment crisis that journalists could document more, particularly in inner cities.  And he urged journalists to start looking for proven ways to bring the chronically unemployed back into the job market.

The following are slightly edited excerpts from his interview.

On the need to keep documenting the toll of the recession:

What you often see in newspapers and on TV news are personal stories of the unemployed -- people who've been unemployed for a while, or who are having trouble finding work, the 20-somethings who are struggling to get started.

That's really important reporting and it needs to continue.   I think people need to be reminded of the personal toll of this recession regularly.

I think there can be a tendency to feel like, oh, there've been so many of those stories already, why run another one? But I think there's a real responsibility on the part of the press to keep writing those stories, because unemployment hasn't come down.

A lot of the media has moved on to issues of the debt and deficits and we need to kind of remind ourselves of the continuing crisis and its costs.

On telling more stories from the inner cities:

One thing I don’t see much of, and I understand why -- I wasn't able to report it much either in my book [even though] it's an obvious target -- but I've seen very  little reporting on inner cities and very low-income minority communities. And they're among the hardest hit. Blacks and Hispanics with limited education in inner cities and in suburbs have been just devastated and yet there's very little reporting on that, really.

There's lots of reporting on white blue-collar workers in the rust belt. There's a lot of reporting on college kids. Those are important demographics, but there's a lot less reporting on high school dropouts, or high school graduates who are 18 or 20. And there's a lot less reporting on young minorities in really depressed areas.

We know, statistically, that they're struggling much more, their unemployment rates are vastly higher, and we know as well that in those communities people are really struggling to get by. An extraordinary fraction of families are now experiencing the electricity being turned off a couple times in a six-month period. They're skipping meals regularly. So these are deep struggles.

Peck said there are two big journalistic challenges to telling inner-city stories. One is accessibility: That reporters sometimes fear to venture into these neighborhoods and once they do, there are very few of the institutions reporters typically turn to in order to find people to interview.

And also the story isn't as novel. These are areas where people have been struggling for a long time anyway. It's not that sudden vertiginous fall that you see elsewhere. It's less dramatic. The people themselves can be less compelling as they talk about it because it's not as dramatic a fall.

It's still a deeply tragic story though, Peck said.

You look at what happened in the inner cities in the 70s, and factories went away, and black men became unemployed in really large numbers for the first time, and it left scars for a generation or more.

William Julius Wilson, the great sociologist at Harvard, has been chronicling those same communities for decades now and he said they were improving slowly, but they're extremely fragile. And once communities really descend as far as inner cities did in the 80s, the whole social infrastructure deteriorates and it's very slow to build it back up. And that's the kind of thing that's really important for children growing up, and senses of hope and opportunity and seeing linkages between effort and reward.  And Wilson's point was that all gets rebuilt really slowly and it remains very fragile. And when communities backslide, they can backslide quickly.

I'd like to see more pieces that explore that question; that just look at what's happening right now. How much have these communities backslid since this recession, especially communities that were slowly improving throughout the 90s and some of the aughts? What's happened in the last couple of years? How has that changed people's sense of opportunity, their future lives? What's happened to families? Are living arrangements changing significantly?

These are big questions. There was a really good piece in the Times a year or two ago that looked at Memphis. It was such a poignant story because it looked at several neighborhoods that were kind of these marginal neighborhoods. They weren't the worst slums. They were getting better. And a lot of the black residents of these neighborhoods became homeowners, and they did it by and large at the peak. The neighborhoods were just improving enough, their finances were just reaching a level where they could do that. These places were getting better, and they reflected really a lot of hope. And they've just been completely wiped out by foreclosure. They're more vacant than they used to be. People have lost life savings. And the story was really was able to show the arc of these neighborhoods and the depths of the problems now.

On other subgroups of the unemployed worth exploring:

Older workers haven't been unemployed in huge numbers compared to other types of workers, but those who've lost their jobs have had an extraordinarily hard time finding work again. Many are working at Wal-Mart part time, and its tragic and they feel betrayed and they feel diminished and I think there are a lot of compelling stories to be told about them -- and their spouses.

And Peck found a trend worth exploring inside a much-cited study by Yale economist Lisa Kahn tracking college students who graduated during the 1981 recession.

Her study also showed that, disproportionately, people who came out in '81 were concentrated in low prestige fields outside of the professions and that they clung more to their jobs. They were less apt to switch jobs. Which in its own way is sort of psychologically and emotionally telling. And you can do something with that.

On identifying ways to reengage the chronically unemployed:

As we stretch further into this jobless recovery and as we start to experience chronic unemployment that the U.S. hasn't really had in recent generations, one thing that I think is a huge opportunity right now in covering this subject is that Europe has a lot of experience with that. In the 80s and the 90s, many European countries had a long weak period, people became divorced from the job market and couldn't get back into it.   I think looking to Europe provides a comparison to where we might be headed, but also, for that reason, European countries have thought a lot more about what to do about that problem, and how to bring the chronically unemployed back into the market.

I think that's going to be a more and more important issue in the U.S. And I think all reporters covering this issue should be looking for examples and analogies and models that they could simply report on. What did the UK do to try to get millions of people back to the market? Because the UK did do that, and they did it pretty effectively. And there are specific tactics to talk about. And then they could talk to US policymakers and say why aren't we trying it? What are we thinking of doing? So I think that's a fertile area for reporting now.

On tying individual stories into the bigger picture:

What I think daily journalists could do more of is [write stories that go] beyond those individual anecdotes.   I think there are a lot of opportunities to try to, in different ways, get perspective on how big this problem is in aggregate and what it really means -- not just for the individual person in the breadline, but for our culture, for our politics and for our economy not just now, but for years hereafter.

There's really a wealth of resource available in history [Peck has particularly studied chronicles of the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, and the 1970s.] Just reading histories of those periods really gives you a sense of what life is like in a high unemployment environment, after a couple years, after five years, and then after 10 years. It improves on imagination. It shows you the breadth of changes that occur to families, to cities, to communities, to politics.  It will give [reporters] ideas on what to report.

I went into my reporting thinking for instance that young people would probably be spared the recession's worst scars because they're young, because they're entering the market anyway, they don't have a lot of responsibilities. As I started reading history, talking to sociologists and reading sociologies of different periods, I discovered it was just the opposite. At least in the past it was just the opposite. And that in turn gave me ideas for new ways of reporting on what's happening to young people today.

Likewise there is so much in academia, in the fields of sociology and in economics and psychology. A lot of studies have been done on the short-term and long-term impacts of unemployment, of wage stagnation, of community decline. There's really a wealth of material to be mined here.

On a handy shortcut to telling more evocative stories:

This is kind of a shortcut --   but it's useful -- to look at people over time.  I looked for ways to try to follow people over time, so I could report on how things were changing for them, and compare their experiences a year or two ago to their experiences now.

One way I did that was simply look at what other reporters had done and find stories written in 2009 about people who were unemployed, and I followed up with those people a year later, two years later. I did it with permission, of course.

You can always ask someone their history, and that's helpful, but also being able to see what they actually said at the time and to have the facts as they understood them then and then to update it is, I think useful and sometimes telling.


Peck recommends the following as resources for journalists interested in finding information or data that can underlie anecdotal pieces:

* Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, has done groundbreaking work on the long-term effect of graduating into a recession on lifetime earnings, by following a  a cohort of college-educated men who came out of college in the 1981 recession, and comparing them to a similar cohort that came out as the economy was recovering and then booming.

* Till Von Wachter, a Columbia University economist who researches unemployment.

* Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose particular focus is on the African-American community.

* Glenn Elder, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who tracked how whole generations were changed by their experience in the Depression.

* Maria Kefalas at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who is running a survey right now of 20-something and teenagers and the recession.

* Polls from the Pew Research Center and Rutgers.

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