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How the Media Covered the Recession


If you wanted Joe Sixpack's opinion, you should have checked Main Street media.

Coverage of the recession has been top-down, emphasizing Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers rather than people on Main Street, a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism concludes.

The finding underscores the inherent strength and weaknesses of the mass media -- and the myopia of the researchers.

"Three storylines have dominated: efforts to revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package, and the struggles of the US auto industry," the study concludes. "Together, they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage…All the reporting of retail sales, food prices, and the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education, and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of the economic coverage."

The researchers reviewed 9,950 reports from newspapers, TV, cable, radio, and the 12 most popular news websites in the nation between February 1 and August 31. Key phrases and ideas presented in the coverage were analyzed by researchers at Cornell University and Stanford University.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that 76% of the datelines on economic stories in the first five months of President Barack Obama's administration were from two cities: New York (44%) and Washington (32%). Los Angeles and Atlanta together totaled 21% of the datelined stories in study period.

"Government officials and business interests drove much of what the media chose to cover," the researchers said.

It's a good thing the Pew Research Center is sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and doesn't have to compete in the marketplace because it's as if the folks at the think tank's Project for Excellence in Journalism looked out the window and "discovered" the sky is blue on sunny days and overcast when it rains.

New York and Washington dominate coverage of the recession simply because New York is the financial center of the nation and Washington is the nation's capital.

If the media seeks to report on those with their hands on the levers of power during a financial crunch, reporters need to talk to folks in New York and Washington. This shouldn't be a revelation to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study's results are skewed by the narrowness of the stories sampled and overlook the financial media, including magazines, newsletters, and websites that tell individuals what the latest developments in New York or Washington mean to their personal finances.

In short, there's a whole universe beyond that nation's top 12 news websites and the researchers ignored it.

Attempting to add comments from Main Street to a national story datelined New York or Washington makes no sense and would have all the intellectual snap of the "Eyewitness News" format that once dominated local TV coverage. This isn't the role of, (TRI) one of the websites surveyed, and a top site for financial news.

Imagine this scenario: The Federal Reserve cuts (or jacks) interest rates and Big Foot Media dutifully tracks down Joe Sixpack in Cowflop for a comment. "I don't like it," says Joe. "I don't understand it, but I still don't like it. Come to think of it, I don't like them either."

Worse than anecdotal and edifying, eh?

Details about what the Fed's latest move means to interest rates on credit cards, consumer loans, and mortgages can easily be found in the financial press -- and not just The Wall Street Journal (NWS). It's called division of labor: The national media cover the Big Picture in New York and Washington while the financial and local media get down to the nits and grits of what the news means to individuals and their household finances.

For its next study, perhaps the Project for Excellence in Journalism might want to look beyond the legacy media and review how the new media -- especially websites devoted to the stock market and personal finance -- cover the recession.

This just in: Staff-written stories at Smart Money, Forbes, AOL, MSN (MSFT), Huffington Post, Slate, Kiplinger's, and (warning -- plug alert!) Minyanville get behind the headlines and tell individuals exactly what the news means to their wallet.

Contrary to findings by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media are serving their readers well during the financial crunch. But no one can cover the entire story, so it's broken into small pieces for different audiences after the national media moves the day's headlines.

In short, the researchers looked in the wrong place to find coverage of what the recession means to Main Street -- and it's all just a few clicks away.

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