This Christmas -- the Gift of Balanced Reporting

     2007 was quite the year for poor economic reporting. Newscasts were loaded with one-sided stories on “going green,” the housing “collapse,” a potential “crash” on Wall Street and even things like sweater and R.V. sales predicting recession.


     But some news outlets and reporters did an excellent job of balancing such negative and agenda-driven reports – reminding viewers that the stock market was up almost 10 percent for the year, admitting there are “rank and file” scientific critics of “An Inconvenient Truth” and praising invention and ingenuity even when it makes money.


     Accurate reporting on the economy or about companies is easy to find in the business press. Print media like The Wall Street Journal or Investors Business Daily excel at looking all sides of a complicated issue. Mainstream journalism often lacks that depth, but the Business & Media Institute (BMI) looks for it regularly.


     When it comes to reporting on the economy, “I think you have to present both sides of the issue,” said BMI adviser and University of North Carolina journalism professor Chris Roush. “When you write about how subprime mortgages are affecting the economy, you have to write it from the perspective of both sides – the bankers who issued the loans and the consumers who took out the loans. You can’t just present one side.”


     In keeping with the Christmas spirit, BMI recognizes some of this year’s good reporting – included each week in “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” feature of BMI’s newsletter, The Balance Sheet.


     This year BMI highlighted some of the work of ABC and NBC for praising free-market innovation, the Associated Press for reporting a drop in gas prices, and USA Today for including skeptics of a Passenger Bill of Rights.


     Even National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” earned a spot as the “Good” for a balanced report on oil November 12. Host Steve Inskeep told listeners the prospect of $100 oil hasn’t had the effect on the economy that many people expected, “At least not yet.”


     The New York Times and CNN also did a good job occasionally. That was the case when the Times ran this headline on its front page November 21: “Fed Expecting ’08 Slowdown, Not Recession,” while other outlets focused on recession. Stoking fears of recession made No. 1 on BMI’s list of The Media’s Top 10 Economic Myths this year.


     On March 13, the Times admitted there are “rank and file” scientific critics of “An Inconvenient Truth,” stating: “[P]art of his scientific audience is uneasy … They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.”


      CNN also made some surprising admissions this year, with co-anchor John Roberts’s skepticism of Michael Moore’s tactics and meteorologist Rob Marciano stating that former Vice President Al Gore’s movie had “inaccuracies.”


     “There are definitely some inaccuracies,” said Marciano on October 4 after Kiran Chetry reported that some U.K. schools might ban the film because “it is politically biased and contains scientific inaccuracies.”


      Marciano continued, “The biggest thing I have a problem with is this implication that Katrina was caused by global warming.” Marciano’s comments caused such a stir that CNN followed it up with another segment October 5.


     In that follow-up, Marciano cited Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center: “He told me the best computer models suggest global warming will cause changes in hurricanes. We should see slightly stronger hurricanes, 5 percent stronger 100 years from now. But the concern that we’re seeing drastic increase today due to global warming I think is wrong.”

Keeping Perspective on a Volatile Market


     Stock market turbulence prompted overreactions in the media throughout 2007. In July, both CBS and NBC evening broadcasts warned of a market downturn. By October, around the 20th anniversary of Black Monday, reporters worried “it could happen again.”


     But CNN’s senior business correspondent Ali Velshi kept a cool head – reminding viewers more than once that stocks were still up for the year.


      After a 311-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average July 26, Velshi urged his viewers to exercise discretion before altering their investment strategies.

      “So this is not a crash, if anything, it’s a correction,” Velshi said on CNN’s “American Morning” July 27. “It might not even be a correction; it might just be a stop on the way.”


     Velshi brought similar balance to “American Morning” on October 1 and December 10.


       “Well, just a couple of weeks ago, we thought your earnings, your winnings for the year had been wiped out. But they haven't. Look at that. The Dow is up almost 9.3 percent, the NASDAQ better than that [12.04%]. And the S&P, a little weaker, but still up about 6 percent,” said Velshi December 10.

Green, Not Always Good


     While the Times and CNN admissions about criticism of “An Inconvenient Truth” were a major step toward balance for environmental coverage in the media, other outlets also poked holes in the idea that everything “green” was wonderful.


      BusinessWeek challenged that notion a couple of times in 2007. Its October 29 issue, “The Fuzzy Math of Eco-Accolades,” examined whether or not the huge expenditures by some corporations to cut greenhouse gas emissions were effective. The magazine concluded that “in some cases companies are gaining green cred while making only dubious progress.”


      Another article called “Little Green Lies” ran in the same issue of BusinessWeek. The subhead said it all: “The sweet notion that making a company environmentally friendly can be not just cost-effective but profitable is going up in smoke. Meet the man wielding the torch.”


      Ladies Home Journal pointed out hybrid vehicles aren’t always an economical decision because E85 fuel (a gasoline/ethanol blend) “has less power than pure gasoline and will put a big dent in your car’s fuel economy.”


      “Bottom line: E85 is a green but not economical choice,” wrote Bob Knoll in the October 2007 issue of LHJ. CNN also admitted in May that E85 results in “a whopping 27-percent” reduction in mpg from regular gasoline.

Companies Earn Praise for Innovation


     American ingenuity and innovation, including private companies, sometimes earned praise from the mainstream media.


      On August 19, “NBC Nightly News” praised two American inventors “succeeding the old-fashioned way.” “Nightly News” was praising John Spirk and John Nottingham, who hold 464 patents – more than any other person except for Thomas Edison.


     While media outlets often attack people for making money, correspondent Bob Dotson applauded the two, saying “You probably own one of their ideas … Their products have earned billions.”


     Florida Power and Light, a Pepsi bottling company and Best Buy earned praise on March 15 for free-market innovation. ABC “World News with Charles Gibson” focused on the first two companies’ “unusual” ways to try to reduce health care costs for employers by providing incentives for healthy behavior.


     “NBC Nightly News” praised Best Buy’s “ROWE – results only work environment so you only go to the office when you want to. The end result – how much you get done is all that matters.” The result was a productivity jump of 35 percent, according to NBC.


     The competence of private enterprise was also on display in a February 5 “NBC Nightly News” segment about rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.


      Reporter Lisa Myers blamed state bureaucracies and federal red tape for the slow progress in federal recovery efforts and pointed out how charities and private citizens were stepping up to the plate to rebuild homes and businesses.


     Charities like Habitat for Humanity “have led the way in rebuilding homes,” Myers noted, adding that the organization said it was the largest home builder in the city of New Orleans.


      “If you want to get something done, don’t wait on government help,” Louisiana restaurateur Karlton Styron told Myers.

Business Media Add Depth

     Audiences might look to the business press for more balance and understanding of economic issues, said BMI adviser and UNC journalism professor Chris Roush.


     “I look for someone who sounds like they know what they're writing about. Too often, I find business terms and phrases being used in incorrect ways,” Roush told BMI. “That's often a sign of a business reporter hearing something from an executive or an economist and thinking it sounds smart, even if they're not entirely sure what it means.”


     Perhaps due to a deeper understanding of business and economic issues, reporters, publications and broadcasts with that sole focus typically provided more balanced reporting – which was also recognized by BMI in 2007.


·         On April 16, Forbes magazine ran a “Global Superstars” issue that explained why “globalization is good – and not just for the rich, but especially for the poor.”

·         On June 25, CNBC’s “Morning Call” included a calm perspective on the housing market.

·         On March 27, The Wall Street Journal printed a balanced story on tobacco that explained smokeless tobacco is 10 percent less risky to one’s health than smoking.

·         On January 30, Fox News Channel’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto” took a look at the economy and included panelists who said the economy was in better shape than the mainstream media were reporting.

·         On August 14, Bloomberg reported an unexpected rise in retail sales. The story also included an economist who said, “Fears about the consumer have been overblown.”          


     “In some respects, I think this [business reporters do a better job] is true. Business reporters deal with money and how people spend and invest money,” Roush said. “If you get something wrong when writing about that, and people act upon your false information, then you lose all credibility with those readers.”