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.