One of the odder media moves in recent months has been News Ltd’s poaching of former Fairfax up-talker Jessica Irvine, whose Kath & Kim economics (“look at MOI!”) are such an exercise in the obvious and banal (she recently discovered that people with degrees, like, totally earn more money!) that people inside and outside the organisation are scratching their heads hard as to the wisdom of this latest hire. Her latest effort is a good example of why:
Struggling to get a handle on where the economy is heading? Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re facing an uphill battle. Nobody tells the truth about the economy.
That’s one way to put it, and it’s true, everyone has their own barrow to push. The “dismal science” is, these days, more the former than the latter, and economics is famous for being the only field of endeavour where individuals can win the Nobel Prize for saying completely opposite and contradictory things. Though when it comes to real economics, Jessica Irvine probably thinks a Greek equation is figuring out how many spin classes it will take to work off a plate of baklava.
But then this:
But maybe you think we can rely on journalists to always tell the truth? Well, sorry to disappoint, but we’re human too. Reporters face what economists call a “perverse incentive” when it comes to reporting economic data in that a bad news stories can often win a front page position; good news stories are relegated to down page 16.
Indeed, the entire media industry, with its heavy reliance on advertising from the retail and property sectors – both in structural decline thanks to lower household debt appetite – seem to have a glass-half-empty view of the economy at present. It is a mark of the editorial independence of our major newspapers that they run so many bad news stories when it would actually be in the newspaper industry’s commercial interests to tell a more upbeat story.
While the courageous speaking of truth to power is always to be applauded, with the Greens and Labor putting pressure on News Ltd and indeed the entire newspaper business via the Finkelstein inquiry (among other avenues), and with the Government consistently complaining that the Opposition is supposedly “talking down the economy”, blanket declarations that journalists are caught in a market failure when it comes to reporting on the subject might be a bit, well, hasty and incautious. It is also not true, as surprisingly good numbers on unemployment have lately gotten very good treatment in the broadsheets.
The bigger issue is that Jessica wants to have her cake and call for a fat tax too: newspapers can’t be simultaneously addicted to bad news and good news stories at the same time. But neither can we rely on News’s latest hire to show us the way. As Homer Simpson once said about Unitarianism, “If that’s the one true faith, I’ll eat my hat.”