A helicopter pilot was flying outside of Seattle on a very foggy day and got confused about where he was. As he approached an office building, the co-pilot held up a sign for the people in the office building to see, which read, “Where are we?”
The people in the office building grabbed a piece of paper and wrote, “In a helicopter.” When the pilot saw the note, he immediately navigated over to a landing pad nearby. The co-pilot asked, “How did you know where you were based on their response?”
The pilot said, “When I saw that the message was accurate but useless, I knew we were at Microsoft.”
It’s an old joke, but it reminds me of modern reporting about economics. I’ve always known that economics was too complex to get right on television, but there was a day when print reporters could be expected to get the basics right. (The example in the graphic above makes it clear that it hasn’t always been the case, though.) It’s gotten to the point that the things I read in most stories dealing with economic issues are accurate in the technical sense, but provide so little context that they’re useless.
This is true about stories about the overall economy, but it’s also true about stories concerning mundane economic news that shouldn’t be hard to explain. I want to share one example that I ran across this week in my local newspaper. I’d like you to read this and attempt to figure out what the company quoted in the story is seeking. (It’s no fair if you bring in other knowledge about the case or already know too much about tariffs in general.)
The headline on this story was, “Alabama plant says trade law needs changes”:
By the Associated Press
HALEYVILLE, Ala. — The chief operating officer of Exxel Outdoors says the Haleyville company has run into difficulty because of a change in trade laws.
The TimesDaily reports that Harry Kazazian says the Generalized System of Preferences trade laws no longer designates sleeping bags as a textile product. Exxel, which has a plant in Haleyville, is the largest sleeping bag manufacturer in the U.S.
The Haleyville plant employs about 90 factory workers, 25 corporate positions and supports hundreds of supply chains.
Officials say companies in Bangladesh have an advantage because U.S. companies must pay duties on imports to manufacture sleeping bags.
The GSP trade laws expired Jan. 1. Kazazian and members of the Alabama congressional delegation have urged Congress to make sleeping bags a textile product again when the GSP is renewed.
I think it’s realistic to assume that the company is really asking for the government to protect it from competition that produces a less expensive product, but it never actually says that. It numbs the mind with facts that are accurate (presumably) but completely useless.
So what do you suppose the story specifically means, based on what’s here, not conjecture? I’ve had several really bright people read it and not a one could come up with a definitive answer without making assumptions that aren’t in the article.
And now here’s the more interesting question. Do you suppose the reporter understood what he was writing about? I don’t think he did. Since I was once a reporter and then an editor, I’ve gotten stories very much like this one from young and inexperienced reporters who didn’t understand what they had heard or what they were writing about. The difference was that I forced the reporter to go back and get information — to figure out what it really meant, enough to explain it in written words.
So think about this. The reporter obviously didn’t understand. The editor who looked at the story at the initial newspaper didn’t understand it enough to point out that it made no sense. Then it went to the Associated Press, which put it onto the wire in this form — with nobody from the AP questioning why it was without context or meaning, as written. Finally, it was used in my local newspaper, The Birmingham News, without anyone apparently ever noticing that it was meaningless as written. (Coincidentally, The Birmingham News announced on Wednesday that it’s offering early retirement and forcing a mandatory unpaid week of “furlough” for all full-time employees.)
Even if every word in that story is accurate, it’s bad journalism. It would be more useful to cover the economy with cartoon images than what’s being done. At least with a cartoon, you know you’re looking at something simple and fun. A pile of gray words gives you the impression you’re learning something significant.
And why are reporters economically ignorant? For one thing, they take very little economics in college. For another thing, most reporters understand words more than numbers — and there’s nobody along the way who’s forcing them to understand that just stringing words together halfway decently isn’t enough to provide understanding.
We live in a world where people are increasingly ignorant of economic matters. The economy is in the toilet and people need to understand why. Newspapers aren’t doing their jobs properly if this is the best they’re going to do in helping people to understand, because “accurate but useless” doesn’t do anybody any good.