Financial coverage needs more investment

Some public policy experts say that the media could have done a better job to explain the complexities of the legislative tug of war on the Wall Street bailout package.

The media is often a convenient villain for politicians from both sides of the aisle, who routinely label it too liberal, too conservative, or too shallow. Yet while Democrats and Republicans are trading barbs over the difficulty in passing a Wall Street bailout package, some public policy experts say that the media could have done a better job to explain the complexities of the legislative tug of war.

Ryan Chittum, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, says business journalists generally served their audiences well during the coverage, but adds that the press could have warned more emphatically in recent months about the dangers of a Wall Street crisis. While layoffs and buyouts have not affected financial publications as they have general interest titles, many monetary titles lacked experienced reporters prior to the crisis, Chittum adds.

“I think cutbacks have hurt financial journalism less than other types of journalism, like city hall coverage,” he says, adding that a slowdown in financial services will likely lead to less advertising revenue for business publications and, therefore, more job cuts. “But still you have lots of buyouts, lots of layoffs, and little expansion.”

David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council and a proponent of the financial rescue package that the House of Representatives voted down on September 29, says cable TV coverage might have ill-served the public by focusing too much on the “blood and guts” of the political fight over the proposed bailout package.

“Cable news, compared with print and electronic media, did a disservice by focusing on the ‘golden parachutes' and voter outrage, as opposed to the nuts and bolts of the of the bill itself,” he says. “But most print media, because they have more space and time, did a good job at looking at the deeper issues. The other thing that's good about online is that you can get to information from the think tanks and the special interests.”

Although information about the bill and economic meltdown is available to consumers, there was a “collective failure” of the press, politicians, and the public itself to urge widespread understanding of the financial situation's gravity, Patti adds.

Media coverage of recent financial events was also contradictory at times, focusing on some politicians' “no bailout for Wall Street by Main Street” messaging, while also implying that the federal government should provide a solution to the crisis, says Pete Sepp, VP for policy and communications for the National Taxpayers Union, part of a loose coalition of groups that objected to the proposed legislation.

“I think another problem was the [media's] total lack of understanding of how the deal went down,” he says. “The coverage basically says that crazy conservatives and loony liberals [fearing constituents' wrath] killed the deal, but that's a very oversimplified explanation... There were a lot rational alternatives given to Congress and... a healthy ideological debate going on over them.”

While coverage by general interest broadcast media might have been too shallow for some groups, coverage by media that focus on finance – such as Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal – provided a greater degree of depth, Sepp explains. He adds that online analysis by other outlets adequately offered consumers both quick overviews and in-depth stories.

But Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has taken no stance on the proposed legislation, says the media collectively missed an opportunity to broaden the public's and decision makers' perspective on the financial crisis.

“This is the perfect opportunity for more background research,” she says. “For example, why is the number ‘$700 billion' out there? I don't know if the coverage has been hysterical, but it hasn't done much of anything to push the level of substance in the debate.”

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