Media’s Role in the Recession

By Kellyn Brown

During this recession I have most often received two complaints that generally contradict each other: That the media is portraying the economy as worse than it actually is, or that we are too optimistic about what is happening locally. Both views are warranted.

The economic health of Northwest Montana is something that no one, especially a small-town newspaper, can fully explain nor cover with a balance that suits everyone. But then there are the broader arguments: The news is too depressing, or, it is not depressing enough. Reading comments, e-mails and answering the phone, I’m unsure which opinion, if any, is right.

Our job is to reflect the community we cover, one that lately seems consumed by economic news. Everyone knows, or is, someone who has lost their job, had their hours cut back or are pessimistic about their future. Still, a case could be made that the optimists are being overlooked. And, in this line of work, cynicism can become clinical.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was the tagline widely used during former President Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign. And while the phrase, coined by Democratic strategist James Carville, resonates today, in the media business it may be more apt to say “it’s the economy, ad nauseum.” In the Flathead, it’s stories on factory layoffs, falling housing prices and tight city budgets. The recession, it seems, has seeped into everything we cover. And while it will continue to do so, it has (as I’m sure at other newspapers) forced us to take another look at what role we should play.

Reporters are hurting consumer confidence locally, a reader argued last week: “Having just been visited by a representative of a local job-placement company, I am glad to help spread a couple of rumors. One is that the media is causing it to be worse than it has to be. A more positive outlook would really help right now.”

Good point.

Others, however, think the stories, or at least those of whom we quote, are far too sunny. So much, in fact, that it made one reader ill after reading a story about an economic conference: “Reading this article makes me want to throw-up. I’m so sick of people painting a rosy picture of our economy here in the Flathead Valley. I’ve lived here all my life and this is the worst it has ever been and it is not bound to get better anytime soon.”

Another good point.

Meanwhile, an altogether different complaint is being aimed at the national media regarding whether the fourth estate should have foreseen, and better prepared its audience for, the economic storm before it hit. Dan Gilmor wrote at TalkingPointsMemo.com that “journalists were grossly deficient when it came to covering the reckless behavior, sleaze and willful ignorance of fundamental economics, much of which was reasonably obvious to anyone who was paying attention, that inflated the housing and credit bubbles of the past decade.”

While we are but a minnow in the media pond, our online readers have brought to my attention stories we previously published that turned out to be altogether wrong. One headline read “Slowdown Could be Confined to Housing Market;” another “Montana Boom Continues.” Many of those same readers were far more prophetic than the state’s experts, or journalists for that matter, about what was to come.

As non-economists we really rely on you – readers with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints – to help us gauge the temperature of the valley we cover. It’s an imperfect, and even sometimes awkward, relationship.

Lucky for us, you haven’t been modest so far. So please keep the comments coming.

If you have ideas on how we can better cover the economy, please e-mail me, or call 257-9220, ext. 16.