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Brad DeLong

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 NiemanWatchdog.org.

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 NiemanWatchdog.org 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.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.