Twelve things economists need to remember to be helpful journalistic sources
COMMENTARY | June 13, 2006
In an accompanying piece to Twelve things journalists need to remember to be good economic reporters, Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong teams up with journalism professor Susan Rasky on a quick guide for economists who talk to journalists and want to help, rather than hurt.
By Brad DeLong and Susan Rasky
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1. Know your customers. Is the journalist who has just contacted you for comment on taxing internet services looking for a broadcast soundbite, for two paragraphs of context, or help in understanding how taxes work? Is she on a tight deadline?
2. Be especially kind to the uninformed journalist. He gets ten points for calling you in the first place, and with rare exceptions, is almost surely working for editors who know less than he does. Encourage him, help him figure out what he should be asking you, and you’ll be surprised about how much smarter he seems the next time he calls.
3. Get over your snobbery about local television news. This is a genuine opportunity to reach the public. Learn to use it. Remember that the local TV reporter’s gasoline-price story this evening will be seen by 300,000 people. Your op-ed will be read by 20,000, if you are lucky. Your journal articles will be seriously read by 12.
4. Never say, "on the one hand, on the other hand." Always say, "I think X because I believe Y is most important; other economists will tell you Z because they think Q is most important. They're probably wrong because of R."
5. Keep your sentences short. This is particularly important on radio and television. But it is wise for print as well. Pith and wit are always desirable. They are especially desirable if you are making fun of how economists talk.
6. Use examples. Every theoretical point you make needs to be illustrated by a concrete example. Don't say: "It's supply and demand--long-term interest rates are low because the supply of capital is high." Say, instead: "Because the central bank of China has bought up $500 billion of Treasury bonds, the American banks that would have otherwise bought those Treasury bonds need to put their money somewhere, and that's why they are so anxious to make you a home-equity loan." Examples based on typical workers, typical households or typical families are the easiest for journalists and their readers, listeners and viewers to understand.
7. Remember that the plural of anecdote is data. Help journalists understand how to find and use anecdotes that are representative of genuine trends. See Number 5 in Twelve Things Journalists Need to Remember to Be Good Economic Reporters.
8. Look for teaching moments. Journalists are trained to believe that the cost of knee surgery for pets is as interesting and as important as the long-run cost of the Medicare Drug Benefit. They are not trained to distinguish between issues that are of vital importance to everybody and issues that are important only to a few unrepresentative yuppies. Clearly mark out where the water is, and lead journalists to it--they won't find it without you.
9. Take control of the narrative. For instance, the story is how the oil market works in a time of high demand, not how evil the oil companies are. The oil companies' degree of evilness has not risen since 1998. But industrializing China now wants to burn a bunch more oil, and two decades of low oil prices have turned the U.S. into a land where Honda civics have been replaced by SUVs.
10. Bust myths. For instance, people shouldn't think that suspending the pumping of oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve materially changes the worldwide cost of a gallon of gasoline.
11. Be generous to your peers. Reporters have fairly loose criteria for expert comment, especially when they are hunting for quotes on deadline. Answer questions, but tell reporters who would answer them better.
12. Just Say No. The corollary to the admonition above. Beware of getting overexposed. If you are quoted too frequently on too many general economic subjects, reporters will lose respect for your academic expertise.
Susan Rasky is a senior lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley School of Journalism.
Previously, she reported for the New York Times, serving as chief congressional correspondent in the Washington, D.C. bureau, and shared a 1990 George Polk Award for her coverage of the Federal budget battles.