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A journalist at the Toronto Star (sorry, forgotten his name) recently contacted me asking about the relation between the Bank of Canada and the Bank of International Settlements. About which I knew nothing. I feel very guilty I didn't respond to his subsequent phone message a few days later (I was busy). His (good) story appeared a few days later. It turns out I could have contributed a lot to his story, but in a very different way. It was about some money cranks who are taking the Bank of Canada to court to get it to provide interest-free loans to the government of Canada; I could have said that the BoC does in fact make (as if) interest free loans to the GoC (it charges interest, but then returns that interest to the government as profits).

Message to journalists: don't be too specific. Sometimes the economist might approach the same story from a very different angle, or know something about the same story from a very different angle, but know little about some particular question. Say what your story is about in general, and see if the economist can add to it.

Nick: "Message to journalists: don't be too specific."

Absolutely! That's kind of what I was trying to get at in #3, but I like the way you put it.

I imagine that you may (probably) have seen them before but I think it's worth posting these, despite their age, articles that Brad DeLong and Susan Rasky wrote titled "Twelve things journalists need to remember to be good economic reporters" and "Twelve Things Economists Need to Remember to Be Helpful Journalistic Sources"

Taylor - those are great links, thanks!

Hi Frances. Excellent post. Your number 2 resonates with me. I get calls for things far removed from my expertise, but some journos seems to perceive me as 'generic economist who will take media calls' rather than 'someone who can help with my story about taxes or pensions'.

BTW, I'm afraid I wasn't able to help that cost of living request--I've taken a few days of real holiday and just left all the emails behind for now...a too-rare pleasure.

Kevin - I hope you had a great holiday - and don't know that you would really have been able to do a lot with the cost of living request anyways.

How long do you think it would take someone to take your tax parameter database and use it to program a tax calculator whereby someone could just input a whole set of parameters and get tax and benefit numbers spat out? Sort of like the CTTB and WITB calculators that are on-line already?

On twitter Joel Wood wrote:

@franceswoolley Maybe CEA needs a communications person to write news releases for relevant papers in CPP & CJE?

It's a good idea and it's been tried (I've been involved in the CEA in various capacities for quite some time).

Unfortunately when it comes to dealing with our academic economist colleagues, we have exactly the same problems as journalists do. Authors aren't interested in helping the communications person write the press release. They get all tetchy if they feel that the press release fails to properly convey the subtleties of their arguments. They don't want to talk to the media and do follow up stories.

Think tanks have these problems too but (a) they can make payment and future contracts contingent upon being willing to participate in the press release (b) there is institutional commitment at the highest level to getting the press releases right. Journal editors, on the other hand, think that press releases are a good idea, but often aren't in a good position to give the communications officer any guidance, and aren't really invested in the process.

It's also expensive to hire a communications officer to do half a dozen or a dozen press releases a year, because that's about how many possibly pick-up-able article we have.

Just a related thought: it's too bad more academics don't engage with the media. That way we wouldn't get the same experts quoted all the time. I see the same names pop up over and over again.

I was amazed to see an MMT (or maybe sectoral balances) perspective quoted at the end of this CBC story a while back: http://tinyurl.com/lfzvknm. This diversity of perspective is almost never provided, but should be commonplace in a healthy media environment.

So convince your colleagues that the way to really contribute to the world is to get out there and spread some expertise!

Economists are useless as a source of information about what's happening in the world today — they can't even agree about what happened during the Great Depression. That's why journalists ignore them.

"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."

I am a journo (or at least, I make my living as one, perhaps not quite the same thing) and that annoys the heck out of me too. Would you like to come on our show and spend your time making money for us, for which we won't pay you?

Err, no, I wouldn't. I'd prefer to be working and making money, or drinking beer or going fishing, thank you. As an example, Huffington Post seemed most upset that I wouldn't go out and buy a camera etc (for Skype video) then be up and sober at 2 am (I'm in Europe) to be on one of their chat things.

I simply state that I'll not do media unless I'm paid (have been exceptions, where it was something particularly interesting). Not a lot, a token $20 is fine. But something.

I particularly treasure the reaction of a BBC producer (and they do pay token sums as a matter of course) "Ah, yes, we would have been disappointed if an economist* hadn't asked for a fee".

(*I'm not an economist but still....)

Avon Barksdale, you've complained about the free pizza here on WCI once too often. I've unpublished your comment. If you find yourself unable to moderate your tone, you will be blocked entirely.

Tim: "I simply state that I'll not do media unless I'm paid" Really interesting to know that the BBC do pay. The CBC will pay sometimes, but I've not persuaded them to pay me. Steve Paitkin on The Agenda has tried aggressively to get more female experts on the show (see discussion here. They have tried just about everything - except, as far as I know, offering payment.

Albert "Economists are useless as a source of information about what's happening in the world today"

A lot of the time people want a weather forecast. No point in calling a climate scientist for that.

Senator-Elect. We try! One thing we (meaning myself, Steve Gordon, Nick Rowe) can do is send journalists to more appropriate experts, and help them frame their questions in an economist-friendly way.

The irony of this posting is it exhibits the v. flaw it criticizes. Who are these old journos who see the job as a priesthood and think others are obliged to talk to them? It seems the only evidence of their existence is a rant on someone's blog--isn't that the v. sort of lazy reporting that Dr. Woolley rues? There's plenty of research from in the U.S. about who journalists are, their industry and why they do what they do, right and wrong. You can find it with that amazing new technology Dr. Woolley advocates called Google.


Tim: er - linking to a US study and assuming the same applies to Canada? Really? Part of what's hurting Canadian journalism is that people are now reading the New York Times (and paying to subscribe) rather than the Globe and Mail.

As for who are those journos - all I know is that journos call me and some can be very persistent when I say I won't do a TV interview. Why they are so persistent only they can say. By the way, re-read interloping's quote and the one after. Old journos know they've been lied to, it's the young journos who still believe what they were taught in j-school. Interloping tells me they were having a very bad day when they wrote it.

That amazing technology called Google, again: http://carleton.ca/sjc/

To access the knowledge here, a Carleton-based Canadian could use that even more radical technology called one's feet.

Tim - who do you think those journalism students practice on?

Tim - And, yes, Nick and I have had a number of conversations with the folks over in the J School about the reasons why more of their students don't take econ and stats courses. There are some cool things happening over there with data journalism. But - if you come to the CEA session on Saturday - you'll see that I do not always see eye to eye with my colleague Chris Waddell as to what good journalistic practice entails.

As an outsider, what I don't understand is why journalists draw from such a shallow pool of Canadian economists when looking for sources. 90% of articles in Macleans, the Globe, and the National Post are written or sourced from one of: Stephen Gordon, Kevin Milligan, Frances Wooley, Rhys Kesselman, and two other names that have slipped my mind at the moment. Sometimes they turn to non-economists like Emmett Macfarlane for discussion of economic issues. No one in journalism ever seems to talk to economists with an econometrics focus, just to name one example. Some more variety in perspectives would be good.

Chris - Part of the reason for this could be that academics might not be making themselves available. Joe Avrai outlines some interesting reasons for academics not becoming engaged in the early part of their careers here. It's possible that some of these reasons keep people from engaging at all.

Another aspect of it could be that economists aren't typically seen as good communicators; anecdotally I find this to be the case. So, when there are economists that are good communicators it would make sense for the media to go back to that well.

Being able to identify where there are differing perspectives would require at least some knowledge of the material, leading us right back to the idea of journalists taking more economics/statistics. I mean, they could also ask an academic about who they should speak to for a different take.

Of course I'm not ruling out the idea that journalists aren't looking hard enough to find the appropriate academic but those are some thoughts that popped into my head when reading your comment.

I think journalists are not too clear on what's important. That is, what news will impact their viewers' lives, now and in the future, and what is 'kittens, puppies, and auto accidents.' But, I think it is one of the obligations of the economics profession to inform journalists of that, since economists are presumably the ones who know.

I'm a journalist at the Toronto Star, and had the good fortune of taking classes from Prof. Woolley at Carleton. From the perspective of a journalist, here are some of the distinct challenges an economics story poses, presupposing that the journalist is writing for a general audience and has an elementary understanding of the subject matter (sadly not always true):

1) Making it relevant to readers. Traditional journalistic thinking is that abstract ideas must be crystallized into tangible, real-world consequences that the average reader can relate to. This is why most economics stories are filtered through the personal finance lens - how a BoC decision will affect your mortgage, what the employment rate means for your job prospects.

2) Translating basic economics lingo. Common academic terms (e.g. externalities, rent-seeking behaviour, deadweight loss) are a non-starter. Journalists assume they are writing for a general audience who have never taken ECON 101. That's not to say the concepts themselves are difficult to understand, but all of those terms must be introduced and explained to the reader just to lay the foundation, which is an added burden when you're short on time and word count.

3) Finding an expert. Hunting for an expert on deadline means finding and interviewing someone in only a couple of hours for a same-day story. As several commentators have noted, we tend to return to the same familiar faces. Usually that's because tracking down someone new takes time, and is a gamble as to whether they'll want to talk, will have relevant things to say and will give usable quotes (See 1) and 2)).

4) Illustrating the story. This is more than a petty aesthetic consideration - articles need photos to attract the eye, balance a page and visualize the subject matter. The problem is only exacerbated in TV, where every second of a story needs an accompanying visual (Frances - this is likely one of the reasons TV reporters are so adamant.) Economics photos are usually dull stock photos of Loonies or white men in suits. The other option is to illustrate these stories with charts and graphs, which require time and technical resources which are in short supply.

None of these are insurmountable, and I believe there is far more journalists could do to cover economics more thoroughly. Frances's four points are a great place to start.

greg: "what news will impact their viewers' lives....I think it is one of the obligations of the economics profession to inform journalists of that"

Part of the issue is that a lot of academic economists in Canada really don't know much about the Canadian economy or Canadian economic policy, for reasons I've blogged about here: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2011/01/is-the-rest-of-the-world-subsidizing-research-on-the-american-economy.html and elsewhere. But, yes, I spend a non-trivial amount of time trying to persuade academic economists to do things that contribute to the common good, and some people are awesome about saying yes, and some people seem to figure the university is paying them a six figure salary so they can sit around and think beautiful thoughts. So I sympathize with journalists' frustrations. I feel similar frustration when I try to persuade someone to comment on paper or write a referee report.

Joel - thanks for commenting. You make an important point here:

4) Illustrating the story. This is more than a petty aesthetic consideration - articles need photos to attract the eye, balance a page and visualize the subject matter.

This is definitely something that will come up at the panel on Saturday, and it's something that I struggle with a lot myself when trying to deliver a 3 hour lecture and not bore the audience to tears. When you can find good visuals for an econ story it suddenly becomes incredibly powerful, like this one: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2012/01/the-concrete-impacts-of-taxes.html. But that's rarely possible. Sometimes I try thinking outside the box, eg. using ecological metaphors to illustrate the economy, as in this video I show to illustrate the invisible hand theorem/first theorem of welfare economics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEaZHWXmbRw. I also like these videos which use cartoons to illustrate economic points https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulyVXa-u4wE.

But it's really tough.

N) if Econ is your beat, keep a notebook of nonsense or false statements, zombie ideas, or predictions which turned out to be 100% wrong, noting the people who said them. In the same book, keep the opposites -- the ideas that are solid and the predictions that were correct and the sources who were reliable.

These need not be sources who are themselves economists. There should be, for instance, lots of Terry Pratchett quotes. They need not be contemporary, either.

Also keep an eye out for ideas, metaphors and theories which only work in some situations, but which are applied with lamentable results, to other situations as well.

As a retired journo myself, I know it's difficult keeping track of these things, because we don't get paid enough or have time enough to be the sort of experts that the public deserves, plus we're under pressure(if only time pressure) to use press releases from governments and think tanks, and may not have a chance to vet it or get second opinions. Have mercy, folks.


NoniMausa: "These need not be sources who are themselves economists. There should be, for instance, lots of Terry Pratchett quotes"

Best advice yet!

Back when I had not yet retired, I routinely received calls from (especially, in this discussion) local journalists looking for someone to help them with some local issue. Often I knew little or nothing useful (urban economic development, economics of education, sports economics being my principal research interests--I will say, when Gary, Indian, was building a baseball stadium for a fringe professional baseball league team, I did at least have something useful to say). But I could often point them in the tight direction (sometimes I had to ask them what it was they really wanted to know about) by suggesting someone else at my institution, or at other local universities, who might have the relevant expertise. Took a little more effort and time than saying, "Sorry, I can't help you." But one thing it did was lead them to trust me when I was able to comment on whatever they were asking about.

Hi Chris,

Send me an email and I will *gladly* pass your name along next time I get a request from a reporter. I turn down more than I accept, and I'm always looking for other names to pass on--people who will return calls and actually want to help out. That is rarer than you might think.

Donald - absolutely. It's a way of helping out colleagues, too. Canada sometimes doesn't seem much bigger than Gary, Indiana, and what goes around comes around far more quickly than one could possibly imagine!


All the problems you note make me very glad that I'm writing in more specialist ppublications, not general interest. Forbes, obviously I can assume a certain amount of base knowledge. At The Register I might have to be quite simple about the economics but there's always some tech industry story which can be used to hang the tale on. And as it's a tech industry publication the readers are going to understand the bones of that tech story, allowing me to point to the econ of of what's happening.

I have written for space limited places (ie, printed newspapers) for that general audience and you have to spend so much time laying out the assumptions and language that econ uses that there's not all that much space left to tell today's story. That's my experience anyway.....

via email from Pulitzer prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston:

I have often relied on Statistics Canada over the years and found them to be a model of cooperation with journalists, professors of economics in Canada, however, not so much. Emails and telephone calls often go unreturned even after appealing to the public affairs officer for Dean’s office. Those I have reached are remarkably either ill-informed or disinterested in expanding public understanding.

For example, when I was the worldwide economics columnist for Reuters I wanted to do a couple of columns on the incredible disparity in prices for new automobiles between Rochester, where I live, and greater Toronto where my seventh child practices law. I established pricing differentials, after adjusting for currency differences, of as much as a third and found many examples in the range of 20% to 25% higher prices in Canada. I made more than 30 telephone calls and could not get a single academic economist to point to any work on why these differences will exist, to suggest any other sources to speak to or anything else.

On the news side, as best I can tell no Canadian newspaper or magazine reported on what I think is one of the most interesting public finance studies I have ever read – and I have read more of them than I care to think about. I wrote it up for Tax Notes International and if memory serves we also ran it in Tax Notes, which covers the US federal system. It was also featured at TaxProfBlog —

You can read my column here: http://www.taxanalysts.com/taxcom/taxblog.nsf/Permalink/UBEN-8A5JCY?OpenDocument

You will notice that I took the study and reanalyzed it. I saw to it that the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the national Post and several other newspapers got copies of my column. I reached out to some business columnists, as well. And of course the Globe and Mail is owned by Thomson Reuters. The only response I got was from one journalist who clearly operates from press releases and has no deep understanding of what he writes about, something I confirmed by looking at his byline on the Internet after we spoke.

I’m told that Parliament has made a number of technical changes to tax and regulatory law to facilitate Canadian investment in Cuba, but I cannot find any indication of scholarship about this by either economics professors or law professors. Of course, it may be that I was misinformed. I took a deep interest in this because the two courses I teach to law and graduate business students deal with property and tax and then with regulation.

David - yup, I deal with academic economists all the time myself. They drive me crazy, too, sometimes.

Strong on-going personal relationships can help though. On the Cuba thing, the person to talk to is Arch Ritter, who has a blog which is a clearing house for all things Cuban: http://thecubaneconomy.com/. Another person you could talk to is Mike Leibowitz, professor (emeritus?) at SFU, who spends a fair bit of time in Cuba. If Arch doesn't know of an analysis of the subject, it probably hasn't been done. Next time you're stuck for an expert, drop me an email, and I'll give you whatever info I can.

Frances and Nick - Re: "And, yes, Nick and I have had a number of conversations with the folks over in the J School about the reasons why more of their students don't take econ and stats courses. There are some cool things happening over there with data journalism".

I want to follow up on this very important point. For many years now, I respond to 3rd and 4th J-students and MJ students' requests for assistance with their research on a paper concerning some aspect of Cdn public policy. Based on these experiences, I am not so certain J-students need a stats course - per se. The distinction revolves around whether they are being trained to become future PRODUCERS or CONSUMERS of stats. Clearly, most J-students or poli sci or public policy students will not become future statisticians - because that is not what they are seeking.

However, based on these experiences, it is very clear to me they need a course in Intro to Economics and even more so a specially designed Intro to Econ/PublicPolicy/PublicAdministration/Business/Trade and a broad overview on how the economy works.

Before J-profs attack this statement, note this is a problem across the social sciences - at least specifically political science and schools of public policy - based on guest lectures I have delivered to these departments over the past 27 years.

Let me deal with the public policy issue first. It is very clear to me that the vast majority of social science students (including business students) are completely UNAWARE - of primary material such as the DPRs, RPPs or any similar publications tabled in parliament - that contain an astonishing amount of empirical information (Foucault was bang on in Governmentality that govts for a very long time measure us, analyze us, segment us, study us, quantify us in every area of human life). I am referring to the plethora of excellent reports produced daily, weekly, monthly, by the 300,000 public servants in the core public service of the GoC. (In my judgment, this is because many social science faculty have a clear bias towards PRJs as the exclusive source of research and information and thus do not teach nor require any research with primary documents eg Stats Can, Transport Canada, NRCan etc).

The second major problem - following on Nick's post on Ricardo and comparative advantage - is that many social students do not have a basic - or even primitive - understanding of the mixed economy, what govts do and do not do, why we trade, why currencies and commodities fluctuate etc.etc. etc

This suggests at least to me that Journalism, Political Science, Public Policy (and yes Business schools as well) need a custom designed first year course delivered by the Economics Dept - that is not the Intro to Econ for econ majors - but instead provides a broad bird's eye view of the mixed market economy. Think of a more "applied" down to earth version (that removes the algebra as there are no math requirements in most U/G poli sci or policy or J-schools in Canada) that synthesizes, builds on the framework and ideas in - for example:

- Heilbroner, Nature and Logic of Capitalism (lefties write these really great overview pieces of capitalism and markets - because conservatives are too busy making money:))
- Schumpeter, Capitalism, socialism and democracy
- Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets (Yale economist who designed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program and War on Poverty from 19565-68 and Politics and Markets is a brilliant giant mea culpa for the failure of the Great Society without mentioning it).
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism - superb analysis of the origins and logic of markets

Rather than forcing these students to take a stats course to learn regression et al (that they will promptly forget if they do learn it as they do not need it because they will not become future producers of stats), instead teach them how to do research using the gargantuan number of documents and publications produced by govt depts across the OECD including the IGOs such as OECD, IMF, FAO, etc.

In my judgment, many of these students lack:

A framework of understanding that allows them to comprehend why and how govts, corporations, NGOs, unions, universities etc. "fit" or function in a mixed, decentralized, liberal democratic economy and polity.

Secondly, many of these students have very little or no understanding at all of the large number of reasonably reliable sources of empirical analytical reports produced by national and sub-national OECD govt depts.

In short, in my judgment many graduate with heads filled with "bloomin' confusion" - tons of techne rather than what Weber called "verstehen".

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