The economy and word choice in the news

I am not a big fan of the news. The news is a business and every business tries to convince you that you need its product. The news does this by making you scared of the world you live in and then positioning itself as the agency that is looking out for you or the source of information you need in order to not get burned. It also adds drama to otherwise bland news stories by overstating the significance of a story or using dramatic words even when they aren’t merited. On-going news stories are the bread and butter of news outlets so they strive to ensure that they’ve got your attention by over-dramatizing the story every day. One on-going news story that I’ve recently noticed conforms to the above pattern is the economy.

News outlets have been reporting about the weak dollar. Let’s be clear – it is weak. However, a report I saw on Google News recently announced that the “dollar plummets”. If by “plummet” they mean “continues to weaken at a not-unexpected pace”, then that’s fine. However, that is not how most people understand “plummet”. In addition, I heard an ad for the 11pm news on TV last night announcing that food prices were “skyrocketing”. I’m pretty sure that food prices are not going up enough to match my understanding of the word “skyrocketing”.

Maybe you think I’m getting overly semantic. I’m not. This is important. One of the key reports that influences Wall Street is the Consumer Confidence Index. When consumer confidence goes down, it usually causes stocks to lose value on Wall Street and it can play a role in Federal Reserve Board decisions on interest rates. Where do you think that consumers get their sense of confidence in the economy? If you said “the news”, you’re right. Obviously, it’s not the only source, but it’s certainly an important source. So, when people are surveyed about their confidence in the economy, do you think phrases they’ve heard like “dollar plummets” and “food prices skyrocket” will influence their sense of confidence in the economy? Of course they will.

So, in the interest of making a little extra money themselves, news outlets are endangering the entire economy by exaggerating the severity of its struggles.  I’m sure you agree that this type of behavior cannot be condoned, but it’s not clear what should be done about it.  If you have ideas about how we can encourage journalists to be responsible in their reporting and not exaggerate news stories for their own gain, please submit your ideas in the comments.

3 Responses to “The economy and word choice in the news”

  1. March 10, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Thought provoking, Colin. Do you think there are good news networks out there that don’t over-dramatize stories?

    I agree that the news affects us in how we trust our economy. I think that I have less confidence for the same reasons you mentioned. Hearing the words “recession”, “credit crunch”, and “dollar plummets” several times a day has made me rethink my spending habits and future plans.

    I wish Chelsea and I could have seen you guys over Christmas. I was bummed that we didn’t. We were pretty busy with family. Next time….

  2. 2 Colin
    March 10, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    If you’re interested in these issues, check out “How the News Makes Us Dumb” by John Sommerville and, to a lesser extent, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. Sommerville argues that daily news is particularly problematic since, even on a slow news day, they need to convince you to watch the news. This leads them to distort the significance of news stories, leaving you with a flawed understanding of the relative importance of events. Thus, he argues that weekly or monthly news is better. In addition to having less need to distort the significance of events, weekly or monthly news outlets have more time to let stories develop, leading them to speculate less.

    To answer your question: if you have to watch a daily TV news show, I would recommend the News Hour with Jim Lehrer (formerly MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour) on PBS. Reading a monthly magazine like The Atlantic Monthly is probably better. (Disclaimer: I don’t personally watch the News Hour or read The Atlantic Monthly. I just ignore the hype in online media.)

  3. 3 Colin
    March 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Yeah, it was a bummer that we didn’t get to hang out at Christmas. I understand how those things go, though.

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