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May. 12 2010 - 3:30 pm | 324 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Does the media care about unemployment?


Brad DeLong asks a good question:

The most astonishing and surprising thing I find about Washington DC today is the contrast in mood between DC today and what DC was thinking a generation ago, in 1983, the last time the unemployment rate was kissing 10%. Back then it was a genuine national emergency that unemployment was so high — real policies like massive monetary ease and the eruption of the Reagan deficits were put in place to reduce unemployment quickly, and everybody whose policies wouldn’t have much of an effect on jobs was nevertheless claiming that their projects were the magic unemployment-reducing bullet.

Today…. nobody much in DC seems to care. A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America’s sellers of labor power? I don’t know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.

And Kevin Drum follows up with his take:

I think there are two distinct issues here. The first is the government response to high unemployment, and on that score I think we’re doing as much as (or more than) we did in 1983. Interest rates are at zero, the Fed has vastly expanded its balance sheet, a $700 billion stimulus bill has been passed, and federal deficits are around 10% of GDP. That’s a stronger response than we had in 1983, when real interest rates were around 5% (and rising) and the federal government was running a deficit of around 6% of GDP.

But it’s true — or at least, it’s my impression that it’s true — that the media focused way more on economic hard luck stories in the early 80s than they do now. I have a strong memory of being practically bombarded with this stuff back then. Today, though, not so much. It’s not that coverage of unemployment is absent, just that it strikes me as much less urgent than it was in the early 80s.

If I had to offer a conjectural and fact-free guess, it would be that today’s journalists are less likely to encounter unemployed and low-income workers than their counterparts in the 1980s. Or, in other words, social distance might explain the difference between today’s economic coverage and the economic coverage of thirty years ago. And to make a slightly more founded claim, that social distance seems to stem from the relative “elite-ness” of journalism, at least compared to how it was a generation prior. From what I understand, journalism has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and has become less of a trade, and more of an elite profession with fairly high barriers to entry.

In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for a smarter writer from a good — but not great — school to enter journalism by way of a local or regional paper, work for a few years (or decades) covering a particular beat, and eventually graduate to the national news circuit. In this system, journalists were more likely to interact and cultivate relationships with people of lesser means — people more likely to live in public housing or face unemployment on a regular and persistent basis. And when these journalists were finally in a position to report on national matters, they carried those relationships with them, which influenced the tone and tenor of their stories.

By contrast, today’s journalism has taken on more of an elite character. Journalists working for publications like the New York Times or Washington Post are likely to have attended elite or Ivy League universities, are likely to have worked unpaid or low-paying internships (which tend to only attract higher-income students), and are likely to have spent their lives at a distance from the economically vulnerable. As a result, while they may care about unemployment and economic distress, their reporting on the subject might not have the same force or “urgency” that earlier reporting contained.

Of course, this is all conjecture drawn from limited information; I really don’t know that much about journalism as a profession, and this is a pretty sweeping assessment. However, it does seem like a plausible explanation, at least on the face of it. But if you have your own thoughts, differing or otherwise, I’d be interested to hear them.


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  1. collapse expand

    No differing thoughts, but I love your posts.

  2. collapse expand

    I think there’s a generational aspect to it as well–the Great Depression was still a vivid and living memory in the early 80s. Most journalists and just people in general had probably grown up hearing stories about the hard times of the Great Depression from parents, grandparents, elders in general, many of whom were still living at the time.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Bouie,

    The news media are in business, they are selling a product, news. That might be a bare fact (unemployment is near 10%), analysis (the levels of unemployment and income disparity are at the highest levels since the Great Depression), or even opinion (“We need to do something about income disparity”). However, whatever form it takes, it is a commodity, something that the reports / editor / publisher is trying to sell to a reader / buyer who is willing and able to pay for it.

    Here is the headline:”Stories about Unemployment Do Not Sell!”. Few want to read about unemployment. I doubt the unemployed want to read about it. Everyone is certain that the whole thing will just straighten itself out if we wait long enough. Mr. Obama lacks the political capital to take any steps to do anything about unemployment and the unemployed themselves are not taking any action. Everyone is in denial about unemployment, in part because no one knows what to do about it.

    In contrast, in the 1930’s the unemployed were out in the streets demanding action. Communists were out organizing the unemployed to take action. There were committees of unemployed people who fought and prevented evictions. The folks in Washington knew that they had to do something for the unemployed or something would be done by the unemployed to the folks in Washington.

    Newspapers, radio, and the newsreels in the 1930’s had stories about the unemployed that people wanted to read about and people would pay to read them. News stories about he unemployed do not happened, they are made to happen.

    • collapse expand

      “Sell” is the operative word. Before the mid to late 1980s when there was a wave of media mergers that put the networks in the hands of giant corporations (think Disney and ABC, GE and NBC), the news media had a sense of doing its job in the public interest. The ability to sell a story to an audience was a minor concern. The big concern was whether or not you accurately reported the news, whether the public wanted to hear the story or not. Media was as likely to drive opinion as be driven by it.

      Since these mergers, of course, the news media has become a captive commodity. They’re as likely to be run by entertainment types and lawyers as seasoned editors. And the corporate parent is likely to influence stories directly and indirectly. There’s less incentive to rock the boat, for example, by doing a story about GE and PCBs in the Hudson River. Or military spending and GE. The public interest and fifth estate role of media has been trumped by corporate interests. It’s the reason the media goes nuts when you talk about restoring the Fairness Doctrine and the 1920s-1930s idea that the public airwaves are owned by the public, not broadcasters.

      This doesn’t explain the complete problem but captive corporate media is part of what has happened to neuter our media outlets.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I’ve noticed that the latest round of studies on how the recession/unemployment is affecting women – including the fact that as things bounce back, women are still being laid off as men are getting hired – has been met with a collective yawn. Then again, I haven’t written about it either!

  5. collapse expand

    They only care about unemployment as to how it relates to their job of promoting the Great Job Killer, Obama

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    About Me

    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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