OLD Media Moves

PBS covers the unemployment issue, and wins prizes for it

December 11, 2009


Earlier this week, PBS NewsHour’s business and economics correspondent Paul Solman won a Business Emmy for Outstanding Coverage Of A Current Business News Story In A Regularly Scheduled Newscast for two reports looking at the “Faces Behind the Unemployment Numbers.”

In industry-abandoned East St. Louis, Illinois, “Racial Divide” (which aired May 8, 2009) explores the especially acute — and acutely underappreciated — crisis of unemployed inner-city African Americans, especially with respect to their lack of social capital.

“You’ve got to know somebody,” says trade school student Joeshawn Williams in the segment. “If you don’t know nobody there ain’t no use in wasting your time. Because that’s what the world’s about these days.”

To which economist Glenn Loury replies, “I wish I could make a new world in which these kids didn’t sit…on the dark side of the moon practically in terms of social connection, but there it is.”

Sharing the Pain” (which aired April 3, 2009) illustrates a proposed solution to the jobless crunch, as being pioneered in, among other places, an Elkhart, Ind., musical instrument plant and Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. From factory workers agreeing to cuts in their hours (“This way more people get to work…I don’t mind giving up a little for the greater good of the whole.”) to surgical chiefs of staff agreeing to cuts in pay (“we were able to come up with $350,000 … to put back into the hospital, to try to save jobs.”) viewer see how even in an era of self-interest, many Americans are willing to be somewhat selfless so that others will feel less economic pain.

In addition to its broadcast reports, PBS NewHouse extended the reach of its coverage via the Internet. On its sites on the Online NewsHour –- the Business Desk, Making Sense, and Extra –- it featured materials playing off all of the unemployment stories, to which viewers were referred during the program.

Solman has been business, economics and occasional art correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer since 1985. He has been the business reporter at WGBH Boston since 1977, was named a member of TV Guide’s “Dream Team” of television reporters, and was the co-originator and executive editor of PBS’s business documentary series, “Enterprise.”

Solman talked to Talking Biz News via e-mail about reporting the unemployment series. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. Unemployment is often a dry story. What works in making it come alive for television viewers?

As with anything in video, communicative, thoughtful people willing to candidly share their experience, feelings, and understanding. An element or two of surprise. An “aha” — that is, understanding something(s) the viewer hadn’t before.

2. How did you pick these stories to explain unemployment’s impact?

One story was set in East St. Louis — for three reasons. First, we were in St. Louis anyway on another shoot. Second, we had very much wanted to tell the story of how in both the Great Depression of the ’30s and the Great Recession of today, African-Americans were the hardest hit. East St. Louis is an almost entirely African-American city. And third, I knew something about the sordid history of East St. Louis — the anti-black race riot of 1917 — from an excellent book: Harper Barnes’ “Never Been a Time.” Harper connected us with our East St. Louis tour guides.

The second story was on across-the-board compensation cutbacks in place of layoffs. The story was inspired by a book from the early ’90s — “The Share Economy,” by Martin Weitzman.

3. How were these stories found?

See above for East St. Louis. As for the ‘share economy,’ Boston’s Beth Israel hospital job-saving initiative had received a lot of attention locally, and I live in Boston. Happening to be in Elkhart, Ind., for another unemployment story, producer Lee Koromvokis and associate producer Diane Lincoln scoured local businesses and sure enough, they found one practicing pain-sharing instead of layoffs: the very visual Conn-Selmer saxophone plant.

4. What’s the biggest hurdle in telling an economics story on television?

Communicating quickly to viewers that it isn’t going to be boring and/or lingo-laden and/or hard-to-follow and/or filled with numbers.

5. How much time do you wait into a segment before explaining to viewers why the story is important?

Very little. Our first priority is to hook the viewer on the story, by any (relevant) means possible. The second is the explain why it’s important.

6. What’s the biggest risk in turning off viewers in such a story?

Boring them or preaching to them.

7. In the “Sharing the Pain” segment, the reporting takes the risk of suggesting solutions to high unemployment. Did you fear that this might be seen as advocating a certain position?

Nope. We didn’t advocate. We simply made the audience aware of what some institutions were doing about the problem of unemployment. The value judgment comes is supposing unemployment to be a social bad. This seems uncontroversial. Journalists should be impartial, in my view, but not immoral.

8. Why do you think these stories on unemployment resonated with viewers?

Because so many viewers these days think: There but for the grace of God go I. And the grace of God has failed to spare so many people the viewers know.

9. How do you think the TV business media have done in covering the current economic situation?

After the fact, pretty well. Before the crisis, not so well.

10. How do you think PBS NewHour covers business and the economy different than others?

The same way we cover everything differently: by taking longer looks, insisting on even-handedness, going into greater depth. And in the case of the stories Lee, Diane and I do, trying to put our stories in the context of larger, enduring themes in history and economics. We try to be more educational than other newscasts, true to our original role in the culture as “educational television.” The wide use of our material in classrooms validates this approach, I believe.

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