OLD Media Moves

How to be a good economics reporter

June 15, 2006

Cal-Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong teamed up with journalism professor Susan Rasky on a quick guide for journalists who talk to economists and want to be in the information — rather than disinformation — business. DeLong and Rasky team taught an economics reporting class this past semester.

Among their suggestions, posted on the Nieman Watchdog site, are:

Economics?2. Never write “economists disagree.” No matter how limited your space or time, never write “economists disagree.” Write WHY economists disagree. An expert who cannot explain why other experts think differently isn’t much of an expert. A reporter who can’t fit an explanation of where the disagreement lies into the assigned space isn’t much of a journalist. A journalist who cannot figure out the source of the disagreement is a journalist who is working for whoever has the best-funded public-relations firm–and is working for them for free.

3. No naked numbers. Don’t report numbers by themselves. Numbers have meaning only in context. And context is almost always impossible without explicit comparisons to other numbers. How does this number compare to other cities, other states, other countries, other eras? How does this number compare to total spending, spending on necessities, spending on luxuries, spending on other kinds of goods?

4. No meaningless numbers. Do not report budget, trade, tax, or other numbers in billions or trillions or even millions. Use per capita or per worker or per household or per share terms to make them meaningful. It’s not a $70 billion tax cut–it’s $43,000 per recipient millionaire per year. It’s not a $300 billion deficit–it’s an extra $4,000 per family of four per year that the government has charged and is expecting you to pay through additional taxes sometime in the future.

5. No fake trends. Three anecdotes do not a trend make. No matter what they told you on the features desk, three anecdotes do not a trend make. Make sure anecdotes that “fit just perfectly” are not grossly unrepresentative. Talk to people who know the Statistical Abstract and the National Income and Product Accounts and Historical Statistics.

Read more here.

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