Do you really want more positive financial news?

Clark Hoyt, the editor of the New York Times, is the latest big-name journalist to try to respond to complaints that the news media is overemphasizing bad economic news, depressing consumers confidence and prolonging the recession.

Consumers and their media are in a “you go first” staredown on the subject.

In Hoyt’s words:

This is an old argument between a newspaper and its readers: journalists see their job as reflecting the world as their reporting tells them it is, but many readers want reporters to look harder for good news to balance the bad. Ellenson said he wants news organizations to go even further. “Tell consumers not to worry,” he said. “Go out and spend as if there is no recession.”

Maybe there are more opportunities to emphasize silver linings. The demise of flower shows in the recession was front-page news; Broadway’s surprisingly strong box office was not. But The Times is not about to do what Ellenson suggests — and should not. As David Leonhardt, a business columnist, told me: “The problems we have are not psychological. They are hard, real problems. None of them can be resolved by waking up tomorrow and thinking we’re going to be happy about them.”

Of course the Times shouldn’t do what Ellenson suggests. There’s plenty of reason to worry. I know it. You know it. The ’27 Yankees know it. And so do many of the consumers who are asking the news media to step back from the brink. So why respond to the extreme?

A few weeks ago, Don Shelby similarly overreached in describing the request:

But, the old story of the ostrich comes to mind. It sticks its head in the sand believing that if it cannot see a threat, the threat cannot see the ostrich. We could just keep the bad news to ourselves, but then, people who would like a little warning of approaching danger, would rightly say, we didn’t do our jobs

What are people really saying when they voice their complaint? It’s not that they want the news media to ignore reality or pretend something is what it isn’t. It’s that they want the news media to take just as seriously, the stories about what people are doing to overcome the tough times. To tell the story without the constant numerical equivalent of hand-wringing.

AIG handing out big bonuses? Unemployment at record levels? A state budget deficit widening faster than the politicians ability to close it? Of course that has to be — and should be — reported.

So what are people asking for? A little hope. A little inspiration. Perhaps a few stories every now and again like those President Obama told in his address to a joint session of Congress a few weeks ago:

But in my life, I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.

I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company (note: see a story ABC did on this guy a few days later), took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him. He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, ”I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. I didn’t feel right getting the money myself.”

I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community – how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay. “The tragedy was terrible,” said one of the men who helped them rebuild. “But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity.”

And I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina – a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world.

We are not quitters.

My colleague, Julia Schrenkler, was following the conversation on Twitter during that portion of the speech last month and noted that it was at that point when the most snarky comments were posted. “See, I think it is interesting that folks snark a bit at these individual stories…but also complain that the news media only reports bad news. Isn’t this a version of positive experiences?” she said on the live blog I ran that night.

It was a great observation. Do people really want the “positive” stories they say they want? Is the media convinced they don’t? Does “positive” news have to be synonymous with “fantasy?”

  • I do not think that “positive” is the same as “fantasy”. There’s not a lot of positive economic news right now, so inventing some has to be tempting – before people stop watching/listening to news altogether!

    However, real stories of real people can be done with a sense of realism AND human drama that is ultimately uplifting. People who say to the banks, “Show me the note” and avoid foreclosure can be very empowering. Small business owners that are taking a big hit to keep people employed are demonstrating what they really value in life and encouraging others to do the same.

    Positive stories? Yes, but they’re based on reality. They’re about people – their heart and their gumption. It’s about thriving in a bad time and providing real inspiration to all of us.

    Time change, but the human drama continues. It’s not a party anymore, but we still can laugh and succeed all the same. If anything, the stories only get better.

  • Bob Collins

    Very well said, Erik!

  • I also think that people have an incredible capacity for ignoring the positive stories that are being reported. Read any newspaper, listen to public radio, watch a local TV newscast. The stories of people overcoming, of people being creative, of people innovating ARE being told.

    They’re not the lead story. They’re not the most teased. And I think people respond to that. I’d be interested in an actual analysis on this issue. My gut tells me that in Minneapolis, at least, you’d end up with a pretty clear balance of good and bad.

  • BJ Bonin

    Some stories don’t have happy endings. If the media were to try and make this economy feel better, they would be rightly criticized for overlooking the biggest economic bust in seven decades.

    I actually feel that the mainstream media is painting a rosy picture compared to what I know about the US economy right now. Things are much worse than advertised, but I believe that the problems are so complex that 90% or more of the public wouldn’t understand the scope and depth of the problems even (or especially) if the whole thing were explained to them in detail.

    That leads to my definition of the problem: it isn’t the media, the bankers, or Madoff, etc. The problem is the US Society as a whole, where we collectively think that every story has a happy ending and at the same time don’t understand enough math to balance our finances and get taken for a ride by bankers AND regulators because they supposedly know better. Shame on us.

  • Bob Collins

    BJ, tells us what you know that you’re not telling us.

  • BJ Bonin

    Prior to 2007, I glazed over when the topic of economics would come up. In 2007, we tried to sell our house and we had 5 showings over 10 months despite cutting the price to nearly what we paid for it. I needed to know why…

    Since then I have read everything I could about the topic, being careful to balance conservatives (Schiff, et al) with the liberals (Roubini, et al). Guess what – they agree that the worst is yet to come, and each coming from their own angle. The mainstream financial networks have a vested interest in SELLING – their advertisers bias them to the boom end of the spectrum so clear eyed folks like Schiff were laughed at for YEARS (at least 2006 – there is a compilation of these on youtube) and they were right. There were plenty of smart people who saw this trainwreck coming years in advance, but they were laughed at and generally disregarded.

    I know that many indicators have predicted “9 of the last 5 recessions” but the folks like Roubini, Denninger, Kwak, Schiff, etc. were CORRECT this time and things they identify as causes of what was wrong (there are many) are STILL not being addressed. Therefore, I can only conclude that the disease is not being treated and things will only get worse until a cure is administered or it runs its course.

    BTW i never did sell my house, and the other houses on the block that were for sale in 2007 are still for sale.

  • Greg

    The guiding principle of media reporting has always been”If it bleeds, it leads”.

  • Paul

    I have a relative who is a financial adviser. Every time I saw him this winter his only comment about the economy was: “well if the media would stop reporting all the bad news…”

    It’s all kinda interesting. There are several spheres of interest in play here.

    Investors and stock market guys tend to forget the the stock market is part of the economy, it’s the totality of the economy. Yes, investors are by and a very fickle and hysterical lot, the irrational exuberance Greenspan spoke of. For them it’s all about emotions and fear. Of course they want someone to tell everyone everything’s OK, they want other peoples money, and they won’t get it until people start buying stocks again, and they think people will start buying if only they stop getting bad news. The problem is people aren’t keeping their money because they’re pessimists, they’re keeping their money because they don’t have much of it. Optimistic and positive news reporting won’t put more money in any ones bank account or paycheck.

    Most Americans have experienced flat or declining wages for the last twenty years. So long as Americans could compensate for flat and declining wages with cheap and easy credit the band could keep playing. Those days are over, and no amount of economic denial is going to bring them back for the foreseeable future. Not only are Americans now forced to live on their actual wages, they have also lost their saving, stocks, and pensions. They just don’t have the money and even Americans aren’t dumb enough to start racking up more debt under these circumstances, besides, the banks won’t let them.

    Sure, the business boys want the media to help them create another bubble… again. Let’s not forget the role that media played in creating all these bubbles the first time, a role John Stewart is now ruthlessly exposing. Pretend there’s not recession? Been there done that. The problem is the real economy just can’t sustain another money making bubble for the boys on Wall Street, the money’s gone.

    Aside from the actual economy media has a problem. It kinda surreal in some ways; after pretending there was no recession, or least any recession worth worrying about until a year AFTER the recession began, the mainstream media is now all over the bad news like cheap suit. And it is depressing, which is a problem if your livelihood depends on viewers and readers. Two decades of turning Americans into consumers instead of citizens has changed the relationship between the public and their news sources. As consumers, people don’t want to be depressed, as citizens, they need to know what’s going on. Mainstream media has so blurred the distinction between entertainment and news that they are now caught in a very nasty middle ground, trying to balance consumer demand for good news with the public responsibility to report the bad. Good Luck with that.

    Here’s what I say, don’t go back to happy talking market cheer leading. Find the folks who predicted the this recession and have/are describing it most accurately. If your going to report on the economy do it right. But is it depressing, even I find myself avoiding certain news simply because it’s depressing. People do want and need good news, but don’t fabricate good economic news, just pump out good news about other stuff. Actually it doesn’t even have to be good news, just interesting news, there’s a ton of it out there.

    I personally have had with “medical” miracles, courageous sick or injured people, tornado or other storm anniversaries, parenting stories, and sports. But that’s just me. There’s a ton of interesting stuff going on, there’s graves stones moving themselves in Germany, a guy in the Netherlands set up a phone number for God, you call it you get an answering machine with a message from God saying He’ll get back to you.

    Finally, bad news is not necessarily depressing news. I’ve always thought focusing on public policy issues is a more constructive approach. What makes economic news depressing is the fact that by and large we are helpless, there’s nothing we can do as individuals about the unemployment rate, so unemployment rates are depressing. But if look at policy, which at least in theory we can participate in, it doesn’t quite feel so hopeless.

  • Paul

    Meant to say the stock market is NOT the totality of the market.

  • kafayat

    I know there are some people who can help but to get them is the problem.

    Men! I really really need to further my education i only have ssce and am 30years