I have been writing about economics, off and on, for a couple of decades. I have also taught economics journalism. I offer the following as advice to myself as much as to my colleagues and to commentators on economic issues.
I am guilty as charged of at least some and maybe all of the following at some stage or other. Take this as self-examination as well as friendly chiding.
1) Take your readers along with you. Writing about an abstruse subject means you have to take extra care to explain as you go along what you are talking about as well as being mindful of technical accuracy. As I’m writing this I realise I don’t do this often enough. In broadcasting, I tried to get the reporters to speak of “economic growth” rather than “Gross Domestic Product” and certainly not GDP. In Print, where there is more opportunity, it is rarely explained that GDP means the total economic output of the country, and even more rarely that it does not measure many things that make life worthwhile. Yet this is the most common indicator used in reporting on economics. Technically, you should not write about inflation but about the “inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index”. It is well to remember inflation is the phenomenon, the rate the measure of that phenomenon. Explaining what inflation means to ordinary people yields a story all on its own.
2) Examine your own biases. The Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out a big problem with business, economics, and financial journalism is “cognitive capture”. This happens when you unconsciously begin to think like the people you talk to all the time. On top of that, we are all human and tend to view the world from our particular places in it. As a suburban, white, and more than middle-aged male, I have to remind myself constantly that half the South African population is poor and perhaps a quarter is desperately poor. This means, among other things, that I have to ask about economic prescriptions, “Who do these really help or hurt and what is neutral, if anything?”
3) Try to broaden your sources. It’s easier to get hold of the bank economists who have figures on the economy at their fingertips and often have valid observations. However, many academic economists have deep knowledge of particular areas and can provide a different perspective. On that point, why do we not feature the counter-narratives to mainstream opinion more often? Maybe the authorities, the National Treasury and the central bank, do not have all the answers.
4) Slogans are no substitute for actual finding out. Terms like “investment strike” are fine for manifestos, but you owe it to your readers to examine the idea that both the asset and liabilities sides of the balance sheet need to be considered. The word “neo-liberalism,” common to academic writing, is not used self-descriptively, too often empty of content, and useful as political signposting but impedes analysis. The difference in economics schools is not between neo-liberalism and heterodox economics but between the various heterodox schools and mainstream “neo-classical” economic thought which dominates the discipline and the profession. If “neo-liberalism” means anything it refers to “market fundamentalism,” a more concise term. It should not be used as a vague excuse to criticise but avoid looking at the actual economic policy alternatives.
5) It’s okay to include non-economists in writing about economics. Stinging critiques of economics have come from outside the discipline as well as inside. Note that two main types of criticism apply, those that want to change, usually mitigate, aspects of capitalism and those that envisage an entirely different economic system. In the past that system would have been Marxist-Leninist command economies. More usually the debate is about the extent of the State involvement in the economy, from the Nordic model to the US model.
More could be added to this list but to underline a final point: just because it’s important doesn’t mean it is interesting. The need to humanize the economic story and not numb the audience with numbers should be part of a basic approach of keeping in mind we now operate in the attention economy, where cat videos and celebrity gossip threaten constant distraction. – Reg Rumney