Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beyond Statistics and Statements

Last night, I was listening to a news and talk radio program that I'd never heard before. It began with a segment detailing the persistently negative news regarding the United States job market. I was struck by the piece’s reporting style, not because it was unusual, but precisely because I took it to be commonplace. I have often found news coverage in the popular media to be formulaic, and given what a horrible state that media has been in for most of my life, the fact that every segment seems to be a parody of the last severely limits the chances of meaningful progress and innovation. Plugging the days variables into an established and tired equation for how to present information to the public does very little to advance that public’s understanding of the facts or the issues.

One of the problems that I have with news regarding the various economic indicators is that, though the public is selectively given reason to be apprehensive about the economy, they are also encouraged to perceive the problem as merely a set of mathematical figures. This is never truer than when the stock market faces a downturn – an event that has no clear connection to real world consequences in the minds of the average American. But even when we are given the numbers for job creation, such as the number zero associated with the month of August, the information is presented as just some vagary of current history, not as what it truly is: people’s lives and futures. There is a constant back-and-forth in the media narrative of the economy, and it gives the impression that when jobs are being created the situation is good, and when they are being cut the situation is bad. It turns the perception of the economy into a comparison of averages, divorced from the nuance of there being victims and beneficiaries in every climate, as well as lingering effects on many people of difficulties that the numbers may suggest have passed.

Obviously, the public knows that people are deeply affected when jobs are lost, when salaries are cut, and so on. Still, when the measure of that effect is purely numeric, it is easy for the public to lose sight of those effects. If you don’t have personal experience with the associated hardships, and if you don’t think very hard about it, you might allow yourself the indulgence of assuming that the difficulties faced by individuals have been, by and large, short lived.

Of course, the media does not exclusively present economic news as a set of statistics. That is precisely what I noticed in the radio segment I heard last night. The formula they follow seems to be aimed at counterbalancing the almost esoteric quality of large-scale assessments of economic indicators. They do this by introducing interviewees who are suffering the consequences of those more impersonal trends and figures. In last night’s case, they spoke to a woman who had been laid off from her job, which provided half of the income for a family of five, who were now not able to make their bills without relying on savings. Bits of that family’s story were interspersed with quotations from experts and excerpts from economic reports, in the same fashion that personal stories are always built into news stories of broader significance.

At the end of the piece, they tied the broader and narrower narratives together with a final thought that displayed shortsightedness and deeply flawed copywriting. They play a quotation from the woman, explaining that she felt that she was facing much greater competition in the current job market than she would have under more normal economic circumstances. The reporter took the reins for the last word, adding to her commentary that in her family’s current situation, that competition is one that she cannot afford to lose. That, I think, is remarkably irresponsible phrasing. It reflects the entire problem of constructing news reports according to this formula, a problem which is far from obvious, but which I think can be quite serious.

Who is it that can’t afford to lose the competition for jobs, according to the reporter? The woman he was interviewing? What about the people with whom she is competing? Saying that she specifically cannot lose that competition suggests that other people can, that she is unique, and that the problem being presented is her problem, not society’s. It is a very subtle outgrowth of the terribly common mentality of blaming the victim, in that that kind of phrasing seems to imply that the overall situation remains a fair competition, and that it is up to the families that are struggling the most to see to it that they win in a competition with people who can better absorb the setback.

The problem with presenting stories like that of the economy as a series of statistics and figures is that it prevents the story from being humanized. Leveraging in reference to one or two people experiencing the associated hardship succeeds at humanizing the problem for one or two people. It does not give the story a genuine sense of urgency for those who are not directly affected. Rather than presenting the public with one story about a series of economic indicators and their effect on entire segments of the American population, this sort of journalism presents two separate news stories in one piece: one bit of reporting about a set of vaguely significant calculations, and one human interest story about the brave struggles of a specific family in a specific region.

These stories need to be connected in a way that is meaningful to people who are not exactly like the ones being profiled in the human interest segment. The impulse to balance a detached perspective on the facts with a normative presentation of their effects and consequences is a good impulse, but its execution is lacking. The news media knows how to present both cold, dispassionate facts and charming personal narratives. It also knows how to speculate wildly on topics such as politics. But what it generally does not seem to have a talent for is the crucial application of reason to situations that warrant more than observation and ideological guesswork. That is what it would take to show economic facts in a light that shines evenly upon everyone who stands to be affected by it. Reporters should sometimes be willing to conclude from the esoteric facts what is happening in society as a whole. Facts speak for themselves, and so do individuals, but the collective experience has no voice. A good reporter should do the work of saying on air what has not been said for them. But there’s no formula for that, and so I have little expectation of hearing such a report any time soon.

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