Even as the economy promises to rebound, reporters are starting to focus on the reasons why more and more Americans are falling into credit-card debt.The one thing most adult Americans have in common these days is the siren call of easy credit, but until recently few in the media were paying attention to the potential pitfalls of the credit card offers that pile up in the mailbox. Personal finance reporting has historically focused on the positive end of the experience - the slow but steady path toward prosperity and independence. But even with the promise of the current economic recovery, reporters are now taking a close look at the other end of the spectrum - the often-agonizing decision families face regarding personal debt and bankruptcy. Since 1967 and the introduction of the first plastic credit card, personal bankruptcies in the US have climbed to nearly 1.7 million annually. But, in this consumer-driven society, stories of over-consumption are never going to be an easy sell. The media, however, are beginning to at least try to look at the big picture of why this is happening. "Right now the news media is focused on why are we seeing this dramatic increase in consumer filings, particularly since the economy seems to be heading in the right direction," says Roger Whelan, a former bankruptcy judge and current resident scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute. Two sides of the story What makes bankruptcy a potentially compelling topic for public debate is the fact that there are two distinct takes on the problem. On one side are the banks and credit card companies who argue that the current bankruptcy laws are being abused by too many people. On the other side are consumer advocacy groups who say that at least part of the blame for the current situation rests with the financial institutions themselves and their constant bombardment of consumers with loan offers. Catherine Pulley, senior PR manager for the American Bankers Association, credits most reporters for going out of their way to objectively look at both sides. "I've answered hundreds and hundreds of these reporter calls, and I can count on one hand the number of reporters who've been hostile," she says. But Pulley, who has handled much of the media education behind the banking industry efforts to toughen bankruptcy laws, adds that there is still a perception among some reporters that banks flood consumers with credit card offers. "Credit-card solicitations have actually gone down over the years," she says, adding that both sides agree the three main reasons for bankruptcies are job loss, health bills, and divorce - not wasteful spending. Media coverage Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America, says that articles on America's growing consumer debt generally tend to follow the government's quarterly release of personal bankruptcy numbers. "It's either a general business reporter or, in some cases, the personal finance columnist who's writing the story," he explains. "And in many cases, they're looking at the local angle, such as why are bankruptcies increasing in Alabama." Plunkett says that one of the challenges facing reporters is that it can be hard to get interviews with families going through the bankruptcy process. "There is still a bit of a stigma attached," he explains. "For many families, declaring bankruptcy is a traumatic experience." But Plunkett adds that advocacy groups can help reporters get that human angle by putting them in touch with bankruptcy attorneys in their area who can then vet their clients to see if they're interested in being interviewed. Along with bankruptcies, Michael McCauley, media director of the West Coast regional office of the Consumers Union, says there is also a rising awareness of the issues involving credit counselors, especially whether the fees they charge to help people get out of debt are excessive. Even with the growing number of bankruptcy filings and the fact that US consumer debt (debt not including mortgages) now exceeds $2 trillion, media coverage isn't likely to increase that dramatically in the coming years. Part of the reason is that credit card and bank industries have been trying since 1997 to get tougher bankruptcy laws through Congress, and the media is losing interest in the legislative story. But another reason is that bankruptcy as a category defies easy analysis. "It takes some time to explain why bankruptcies are increasing, and that's one of the reasons why electronic coverage has never been high," says Plunkett. "This story is more print-driven than many issues, and the major reason is it's complex." ----- Pitching... personal bankruptcy Work with bankruptcy lawyers to find people willing to talk about their bankruptcies before you pitch the story. Reporters will want to put a human face on the numbers. Look to localize this national trend story by lining up banking representatives and consumer advocates from your area to offer up both sides of the issue. Try to sell reporters on the fact that some part of their audience is facing hard times and needs this information in order to determine what they should do next.
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