The Media, Economics, and Education «Menu | Next»  

Originally published in
Business Horizons
Volume 39, Number 4


Greenspan, Gross Domestic Product, FICA: most people don’t know the significance of these words, even though they appear on our televisions, in our newspapers, and on our paychecks. In fact, New York Ranger Nick Kypreos recently said that while his team was visiting Washington, D.C., he wanted “to find out who this FICA guy is and how come he’s taking so much of my money.” This quote is hysterical until you consider all the people who read it saying, “Good idea!”

When you mention the money in people’s pockets to which economic items are related—higher or lower interest rates, recession, cash from paychecks—then economics takes on a serious personal meaning for the average citizen. So why aren’t we more aware? Through inadequate media coverage and misguided education, people aren’t understanding as much about economics as they should. What follows is a look at some problems of media coverage and education (the sources for economic information) and some possible solutions.

The Problem With the Media

People get most of their information about the world from television. It would seem, then, that with all the information TV dishes out, at least there would be a little basic explanation of terms such as GDP or how it affects workers. All too often, though, this is not the case. The news media may mention Alan Greenspan, but only in reporting what he did today, not in terms of the vast amount of power this unelected official has over how expensive one‘s loan payment is. The stock market may have hit another record high today, but what does that mean? Should we care? What if we do care? How can we interpret it?

Above: Business Horizons is a bimonthly economics journal published by the Indiana University Graduate School of Business. This article was featured in The Editor's Chair, A column with an introduction by the editor that begins each issue with a topical subject.


It isn’t that hard to find out, but the mass media don’t make it easy. The average person knows plenty about whoever is getting 15 minutes of fame at any given moment, but can’t begin to explain why Social Security is threatening to bankrupt the country. And this is sad, because being in a bankrupt country doesn’t sound appealing to anyone. Even though such issues as Social Security or what the Federal Reserve is up to have huge ramifications for everyone, they just aren’t portrayed as interesting or simple enough for the average person to understand.

Unfortunately, as important as economic issues are to people, we know more of them than about them. Even some journalists see the problem. Paul Solman, business and finance reporter for The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour says, “Business journalists need to put our less daily data, less investor-oriented analysis, and a lot more basic explanation of the terms and issues and economic choices that lie before us.”

Rather than an explanation, however, what we get most of the time is an account of the day’s events, instead of clues on how to interpret those events. Granted, a news anchor can’t give an economics lesson in every broadcast, but a little explanation thrown in with the data would go a long way.

Although this daily information is vital and needs coverage, it may as well be in Martian if people cannot apply their knowledge of it. If people don’t have some sort of Martin decoder ring to understand such information as how interest rates affect the economy, then they won’t think about the right times to invest or what have you. So they become irate at something vague such as banks or the President, even though these objects of frustration may not be directly responsible for anyone’s drop in cash.

If people knew more about the Federal Reserve, pending legislation, or how to interpret economic news, they might know where to focus their attention and action in the hopes of a better future, rather than getting angry at the wrong entity.

Still, even though that entity could justifiably be the media, is it the media’s job to educate? Well, yes and no.

The Problem With Education
I remember in high school that economics was a required course. Because it was considered so important (by well-meaning educators, bless their hearts), almost everyone took the course right away in their freshman or sophomore year. Now that I have an above average interest in economics, let me tell you what I remember from that semester-long class. The 400+ page textbook was an ugly brown, the sophomore in the front row was cute, supply and demand is important somehow, our system is better than Communism’s, and... did I mention the textbook?

Sometimes I wouldn’t mind seeing that textbook again. Now that I have such things as a job, a bank account, credit cards, bills, and a concept of the future, I could get more meaning out of the information I merely memorized and spat back out so many years ago. Rising or falling interest rates really did not mean that much to me as an unemployed, oversexed 14-year-old. So I went to college—the opposite end of the spectrum.

The higher learning version of economics is often very much what the name implies: learning that is higher than what can be grasped. Though the information is still very important, the concepts are often so intimidatingly technical that most students are thrilled to get our of an economics class with a “C” and without any of that painful econospeak clanging around in their heads.

Economics is a required course only for certain degrees other than business-related ones. This means there will be an occasional journalism, history, or music student in the class who is resentful from the beginning that some (sigh) well-meaning educator is making her suffer through graph after graph of abstraction. Result: economics seems irrelevant for high-schoolers, whereas college students who could use the information are turned off by its technical nature.

Where, then, can a concerned consumer look to for comprehension? Or, as The Columbia Journalism Review asks, “Who will demistify this stuff if not journalists?” Back to the media we go.

Suggestions for the Media
Although television has the power to confuse as well as educate, it isn’t all bad all of the time. Sometimes television news will go into depth with economics—in plain English. In October, for instance, ABC’s ”Nightline” covered the difference between Gross Domestic Product and the Growth Progress Indicator. The program showed that GDP, though on the rise (and hyped up by the government’s PR people), is not as accurate a measure of the economy as the GPI. For a definition of GDP, the show even used another news item almost everyone has heard about. You guessed it: the O.J. Simpson trial. How topical! The program explained how every single O.J. button, t-shirt, and book sold is related to GDP. And although this may sound trite to someone already in the know, it was made perfectly clear and concise for everyone else (the majority of viewers, that is).

This is the sort of thing the media need to do more often—and I don’t mean engaging in sensationalism. If journalists and economic specialists would occasionally lower themselves to the level of average understanding, there would be a lot more, well, understanding. People would know more about what their money is doing and what to expect in the future from companies or the government. And this can be done, because people do want to know.

A Times Mirror poll proves that economics is indeed newsworthy. The poll showed that 44 percent of respondents had followed reports about the economy in January very closely (up from 34 percent 15 months earlier). But was this just a side effect of an upcoming election year? No, because the poll also showed that economic news about job cuts at General Motors and The Federal Reserve’s reduction of interest rates was followed very closely by 35 percent of respondents. This means that at least some people are indeed concerned about economics.

Election campaigns also demonstrate people’s concern, with the debt, budget, and deficit ranking as hot discussion topics. This could still be the case—possibly even more so if people had a firm grasp on everyday economics, rather than only getting fired up every four years. What if 65, 75, or 95 percent of people closely followed reports about the economy all of the time? Imagine how politicians and corporations would shiver with fear if they knew that we understood what they were doing. More and better economic news coverage could accomplish this, as could the classroom.

Suggestions for Education
As with the media, the most obvious suggestion would be for a more basic relation of information. Solman also believes this is paramount, saying, “in economics, what‘s not understood above all are the fundamentals.” People who were more than just aware of economic items—who were, instead, actually understanding them—could have more peace of mind. Their situations would also likely improve. Well-intended educators know this, but simply making a course required won’t do the trick. It is how the information is presented that spells the difference between comprehension and apathy.

A way to have more students comprehend would be to have educators place themselves in the positions of their students and ask, “What’s in it for me? Can you tell me in five sentences or less how knowing _____ (insert economic item of your choice here) will improve my life?” If a professor can answer these questions right away in a discussion, then a student will more likely remain interested in the analysis that follows, rather than just eying that cutie in the front row. Relating the information to a personal level all the way through a lecture would also ensure retention.

This sounds simple, but it is not always easy. Educators, reporters, and economic experts all run the risk of getting sucked in by theory, jargon, and technicalities. When this happens, they need to remember the audience. This does not mean the economic journals need to use less jargon; they have a specific audience that understands the subject already. The problem to avoid with economics is assuming that the audience (whether a classroom or viewership) has full comprehension all of the time. Keeping all of this and more in mind when trying to make sense of economics for anyone can seem daunting. As Thomas Winship, editor of The Boston Globe for 20 years says, “Think of the talent needed to translate into English our monetary policy.”

This translation does require talent, but if people have studied the subject long enough to become authorities in teaching positions, then surely the intelligence that got them there would also be capable of finding ways to make that translation happen. Even something as simple as a periodic review of the basics would help.

Just hearing a definition or explanation once at the very beginning of a technical discussion (or newscast) often is not enough. A certain amount of repetition is necessary to keep everyone attentive instead of nodding like cattle. Telling people the same thing in different ways (such as how economics relates to them, their paychecks, and so on) will eventually bang it into their heads rather than over their heads.

Conclusion
If the most important economic issues were given enough attention, with the proper perspective, both in the classroom and in the media, then more people would realize that what is happening with economics is worth understanding. And this understanding—despite what politicians and corporations might think—would actually be good for the economy. People would be making informed purchases, keeping a firm eye on government spending, saving for the future, making more and better investments, and feeling better about the economy by feeling as if they were a part of it. The media and education have the power to create this understanding.

References

Debra Gersh, “Economic News Draws Most Reader Interest,” Editor and Publisher, February 1, 1992. p. 12.
“Nightline.” with host Forrest Sawyer, ABC, October 24, 1995.
Paul Solman, “Dumb Questions, Smart Questions,” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 1992. pp 28-30.
“They Said It,” Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1995.
Thomas Winship, “The New Curmudgeon,” Editor and Publisher, February 1, 1992, pp. 5, 27.


© Richard Smith «Menu | Next»