McGuire on Media

Bloodless journalism and mindless stats are not the way to report this recession

The bright professional woman of a fairly conservative political stripe looked at me with plaintiveness in her eyes and said: “It’s almost as if the media are celebrating and reveling in this economic tragedy.”

I looked back at a woman I had disagreed with vehemently on other political issues and said softly, ” Anna, you are absolutely correct on this one and it is driving me crazy.”

Confession first.

In 52 days I will be 60 years old. Perhaps it is was my protected childhood in a small Michigan town, perhaps it was my privileged life as an executive, or perhaps it was my selfishness. It is clear to me I have never experienced such personal impacts from a recession.  I make a lot of jokes , but the damage to the comfortable portfolio that was supposed to sustain my wife and me is more than substantial.  We’ll survive it, but so many peers won’t.  All of my children and my son-in-law are working for companies going through hiring freezes and layoffs.  None of them know whether they will steer clear of the cleaver.

Last week ASU mandated that all faculty members take nine “furlough” days before June.  That’s a polite 2009 way of reducing our pay.  Again, for me in my comfortable situation, it’s the source of wisecracks and amusements. For staff here at ASU and the Cronkite School who need every dollar of their paycheck, it is devastating. Part of me wanted to get angry at “the principle of the thing” concerning those layoffs.  The problem is the furloughs which are a nuisance for me, protect hundreds of staff jobs. The only spiritual thing to do is to take a hit for the team. Around the country countless folks are coming to that same difficult conclusion: perhaps my little inconvenient suffering will keep a roof over someone else’s head. 

Actually the watershed moment the vividness of this recession hit home for me came two weeks ago. Jason, my middle son, has Down syndrome. He is almost 30 and he works for a sheltered workshop. For the last seven years he has left the workshop three days a week to bag Styrofoam pellets. He loved that job.  Past tense. Two weeks ago the company severed its contract with the sheltered workshop. When we asked Jason why he lost his job he got very pensive and  pronounced, “It’s the economy.” Jason doesn’t know the economy  from Mickey Mouse, but his comical insight jolted me emotionally. Somehow, laying off my special son made this recession far more personal. Since that day I have been strangely focused on all the ways real live human beings have been touched by this economic travesty originally fueled by greed.

I wish journalists were just as focused.

Obviously, it’s not the case, but I sometimes I get a sick and scary feeling I am one of only a few journalists focused on real live human beings. My friend Anna is right. Television commentators, journalists and writers are too often throwing out layoff numbers like they were baseball stats. Massive numbers of layoffs trip off their tongue so easily you want to smack them.  Record declines in important economic statistics are delivered bloodlessly with little compassion and almost no reference to real people. Last week I saw a rare NBC news report talk about a steel plant in Indiana, but in these days of trimmed down news staff it is easier and cheaper to report just the numbers ma’am!

I have railed before against journalists failing to make stories matter and I have argued that journalists do a poor job of covering “values.” This failure to report on the human drama surrounding the worst economic downturn of our lives is not only negligent journalism. It is an ethical and moral transgression of huge proportions. 

Politicians want to talk about the size of stimulus plans and the final budget numbers in your state budget and too often journalists are letting themdo that.  If you read the coverage of local newspapers and watch local television the “universities and K-12 education” took the biggest hits here in Arizona. That is bull hockey! Teachers, kids and parents took the biggest hits! Journalists must stop allowing politicians and big business to depersonalize these cuts and layoffs.  Microsoft is laying off 5,000 human beings with families, mortgages and car payments.  Target laid off 1,000, all with dramatic stories of how this recession is going to affect them.

This should not be a score sheet. We’re talking about real lives going to hell in a hand-basket and the clinical, sterile language is making all this easier on corporations and government.  Journalists have to stop the dispassionate recitation of numbers and start covering stories that show the drama and the hurt. This trickle down project by Cronkite School journalists headed by local freelancer and adjunct professor, Terry Greene Sterling. shows us a path to bringing the wrath of hard times to life. Terry’s student reporters put blood and bones on the hardship in a way that must become common practice before mainstream media loses our economically damaged constituents.

My friend and Cronkite School colleague Dan Gillmor wrote a tough blog entry last week on the press failure to cover the mortgage meltdown in its incipient stages. Again in this blog, Dan takes no prisoners in his belief that the press let the public down in that coverage.

Journalists must start looking more often at the human side of this economic morass. They must go beyond the antiseptic numbers and the academic percentage declines to find the tears, heartbreak and broken dreams of this recession. If they don’t, another catastrophic journalism failure awaits. 

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4 Comments

  1. Kristin Gilger
    Posted February 2, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. I would like to see our local newspapers do a series of vignettes on people affected by the economy — something similar to what The New York Times did on the victims of 9/11, but with nut graphs about how the person profiled in each story is representative of a larger group. They could run every single day until this downtown becomes … something other than a downturn!

  2. Tom Simmons
    Posted February 2, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Perceptive as hell! And until the journalists get the message that they are not delivering the REAL STORY, the greedy idiots who created the mess (and for the most part remain on the job) certainly won’t be held accountable in the court of public opinion. Nor will they ever see the real human suffering they have caused and, just perhaps, mend their ways. Journalists are the front line in the war against the apathy for economic suffering caused by greedy business leaders and politicians. Let’s encourage them to use more fire-power by show-casing the REAL HUMAN PAIN.

  3. Posted February 11, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Are you talking about what’s on the national news wires or what’s in your local newspaper / on your local tv news?

    For some context, here are the reports / sections local news orgs in Denver have put together about the recession.

    CBS4Denver: http://cbs4denver.com/recession
    The Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/jobs
    Rocky Mountain News: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/pages/special-reports/unemployment-job-search/

  4. Nan Connolly
    Posted June 7, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    The topic of greed is broached here and elsewhere, in talk about the great recession. That’s a strong term. Were mortgage brokers greedy, pushing loans they knew were outside the feasible zone but also knowing they’d get paid their fees anyway?
    Were lenders predatory in burying facts in mice type, using legalese to confuse borrowers and cooking up so many fees that closing costs doubled in some regions in five years?
    Yes?
    If one heads down this road, it is impossible not to also ask about the retail borrower. Is “I was confused/lied to/overwhelmed” excuse enough for them?
    If we begin to ascribe ethical labels to financial behavior, it’s time to apply them all around. Those inflated home prices puffed up property tax hauls, a point rarely remarked. Those developments provided jobs, at least for a while.
    When the bubble burst, the finger-pointing could start. The question remains – who should we point at?
    And how can we avoid a repeat?

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