Economic News Scary Enough Without Media Hype

By Richard Benedetto

Car sales didn’t drop in November, they “tanked.”

Mortgage foreclosures didn’t increase last month, they “skyrocketed.”

Stocks didn’t drop this week, they “plummeted.”

The unemployment rate didn’t rise last month, it “spiraled upward.”

And state and local budgets aren’t being cut or trimmed, they are being “slashed.”

Indeed, when it comes to reporting on the economy, the news media appear caught up in hype and exaggeration, all seemingly designed more to frighten you than inform you.

If a more-lively verb synonymous with “increase,” “decrease,” “rise” and “fall,”  has yet to be unearthed in this recent binge of economic-bad-news reporting, it would be difficult to guess what it might be. The same for hot adjectives and adverbs.

Listening to radio news, reading the newspaper headlines or watching the chatterboxes on TV jawbone on the economy, it would appear that desktop thesauruses are becoming thumbworn as reporters seek new words to make things sound as bad or as desperate as possible.

“New home sales in October fell a whopping 5.3 percent,” a network radio news report trumpeted. (Since when is 5.3 percent “whopping”?)

Even the usually more-staid Bristish financial press has joined the act. The Dec. 1 edition of The Financial Times used the word “plunge” in four economy-related headlines. Like this one: “New Star Shares Plunge Amid Bank Talks.”

But the hype phenomenon is not limited to big national and international newspapers or broadcast networks. The bug has hit the heartland, too.

“Indiana poverty rate soars as manufacturing jobs cut,” said a late-November headline in the Munster (In.) Times. (It actually increased five percentage points in the past eight years.)

Only when the economic news is somewhat good do the verbs tone down. Most recently, while average gasoline prices have certainly plunged from over $4 a gallon last summer to under $2 now, the news reports generally talk about “falling” gas prices. But when they were going up, they were skyrocketing, soaring and blasting off.

None of this would come as a surprise to journalist-media critic James Fallows, whose book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, outlined the phenomenon now barreling ahead full tilt.

“Economic news is typically presented in a way that makes people feel that they are helpless in the face of large-scale trends,” Fallows wrote. “A fatalistic, protect-what-I’ve got mentality is increased by reports making people feel more beleaguered than they should.”

To be sure, there are times when lively verbs, adverbs and adjectives are appropriate and necessary in economic news reports

If, for instance, the unemployment rate doubled in one month, then it would be accurate to say it “skyrocketed.” However, if it increased by 0.2 percent, from 6.5 to 6.7 percent, then “skryrocketed” is not the right word to accurately describe what happened. “Increased’ would be better.

Does it make the story less interesting or less likely to be read or listened to if there is less hype?  Maybe.  But at least it doesn’t leave people with the wrong impression, or worse, cause them more anxiety than necessary. After all, we in the news business are interested in accuracy more than hype, aren’t we?

Richard Benedetto is a retired White House reporter and columnist for USA Today. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown Universities in Washington, D.C.. His most recent book isPoliticians Are People, Too”

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