1. Find better stories.
The Canadian media does a pretty good job of covering Statistics Canada and OECD news releases, and think tank reports. Where they lag behind the US is in coverage of academic research.
Take, for example, a paper published in Canadian Public Policy last year by Luc Godbout, Yves Trudel and Suzie St-Cerny on the rate of return that Canadians can expect to receive on their contributions to the Canada Pension Plan. It shows someone who retired in the mid-1990s could expect to receive a 10 percent rate of return on their Canada Pension Plan contributions, but late boomers, Gen-Xers and subsequent generations can expect a rate of return closer to 2 percent.
There is much discussion in Canada of expanding the Canada Pension Plan. People need to know just how low the rate of return on the plan will be for future retirees. This was a newsworthy story, but it received pretty much no media coverage.
Sure, part of the problem is that a lot of academic economists are pretty hopeless at getting their research out there. But journalists could make themselves part of the solution by signing up for contents alerts for Canadian Public Policy (here), the Canadian Journal of Economics (here), and the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper series (here).
Journalist and Carleton grad Joel Eastwood has used NBER articles like this one as the basis for stories like this one. His take? "It's not hard to find interesting topics in the weekly batch of [NBER] working papers; the difficult part is convincing an editor why an academic paper is relevant to readers, which usually means translating economics-ese into layman's speak." Joel's experience suggests the hardest part of getting Canadian economics research into the media may be getting started - if journalists and economists can prove that these kinds of stories generate hits, editors will get on board and coverage will follow.
2. Find better commentators.
A while ago I received this request:
I'm a producer at _______ in Winnipeg and I'm working on a story I hoped you could help with. With a looming strike at the University of Manitoba we wanted to have a labour expert on our morning show on Monday to talk about the strike and the issue of academic freedom.
That's not a topic I know well enough to do on a morning show, so I declined.
I have a lot of sympathy for that producer. There are literally thousands of academics in Canada. But on a specific topic, such as academic freedom in the context of labour law and collective bargaining, there may be only half a dozen or a dozen people who are actively working or researching in the area. Finding the right person must be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
It would help if journalists were better at figuring out what type of expert they needed. For example, the Winnipeg producer probably needed a a labour lawyer or a labour relations specialist than with a labour economist. As a rough and ready guide: Macroeconomists know about the overall economy, and aggregate economic numbers like growth rates and GDP and employment. Microeconomists look look at the systemic effects of policies on individual economic actors, for example, how savings behaviour changes when the tax rate on savings decreases.
Business school types differ from economists in that they are more likely to be able to speak to what happens inside companies, or about specific cases. A business school type might have an opinion on why Company X located their chocolate factory in Mexico rather than Canada, and what that means to the local economies where the factor is/might have been located. An economist would have an opinion on the desirability of free trade in general.
When I need to find an expert on a topic, I do a quick search on google scholar, using the words economics Canada topic. The order of the words matters a lot - "Canada economics topic" will generate different results from "topic economics Canada".
Then filter the results by "since 2011" to restrict the search.
The advantage of doing things this way is that one can then contact the person and say "I see you've written on .... and was wondering if..."
The precise choice of words matters a lot. For example, "female employment", "female labour supply" and "female unemployment" will generate completely different results. It's often a good idea to play around with a few different word choices.
3. Ask better questions
I found this rant on interloping.com
the older journos have discovered they’ve been lied to. They were taught in J school that reporting is a calling, similar to medicine or the priesthood. That the very fabric of democracy would be rent asunder if they didn’t do things just so. For them, adherence to journalistic convention has a theological bent that, like the GOP, makes it really difficult to adapt to the new context. Belief in the fifth Estate is part of a wider worldview where they play a central part. They will defend it like cornered rats. Until they get fired.
This rant made a whole lot of things suddenly make sense. It explained, for example, why journalists are so reluctant to accept that, no, I don't want to take several hours out of my day to do an (unpaid) television appearance. They perceive media participation as fundamental democratic duty. I don't. It's just another demand on my time, like meeting with students, quality assurance, committee meetings, referee reports, discussant comments.... And not a particularly important demand on my time at that.
This rant also explains why some journalists attempt to control the narrative - after all, they're the reporter. My pet peeve is journalists who have a pre-conceived story in mind, and will keep an expert talking until he or she provides the quote that the journalist is looking for. For example, in a recent interview I said something that could be interpreted as meaning "if elected, a Liberal government would impose a limit on lifetime TFSA contributions". The statement made sense in the context of the journalist's leading questions, but did it make sense in the context of the article? It's not the kind of thing that I'd deliberately go on record as saying, but it was the story the journalist wanted to tell.
Fear of being quoted out of context, or of having a single sensational quote cherry-picked out of a long conversation, is one reason why academic economists are often reluctant to talk to the media.
But interloping.com explains why journos juice it up:
So there is a feeling of debasement as now the media serves a similar role in politics as margin debt during bull markets – they wait for the wire story from Reuters and then provide the leverage, the outrage and the hype. Desperate for attention, everything must be more momentous, more terrifying, more heartwarming “PLEASE JUST LOOK WILL YOU! WE”LL DO ANYTHING! HERE’S ANOTHER KITTEN ITS GOT A LITTLE WHITE MASK LIKE A RACCOON! – an entire industry chock full of Miley Cyruses only with less focus.
When journalists debase themselves, they debase their sources too.
Far more satisfactory, from my point of view, is a recent email conversation:
Journo: What I'm trying to look at is how feasible it is to live on a full-time minimum wage job in different Canadian cities. Presumably the cost of various necessary things (shelter, food, etc) differs from city to city, as minimum wage does from province to province...how would you suggest I go about answering it? Are there sources of data that you think I could draw on?
FW: Kevin Milligan at UBC has a program that calculates the transfers available to people at different income levels in every province in the country. You can also figure out what transfers are available on various government web sites. Check out the Working Income Tax Benefit calculator http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/bnfts/wtb/menu-eng.html
Quick, easy, totally satisfactory as far as I'm concerned - hopefully the journo got their story.
Take-aways: approach academics by email, engage in a two-way dialogue, be willing to take no for an answer, and work on building long-term relationships and trust.
4. Take courses in introductory economics, statistics and accounting
It's hard to learn this stuff on your own, and it helps a lot in reporting. And in life in general.