What American outlets should learn from a new study on the BBC’s reporting on politics and the economy.
There’s a lot to gripe about when discussing the Beltway media class in the United States. Progressives at groups like FAIR and Media Matters have spent years rightfully criticizing the press for access journalism, the ever-present need to equate perspectives from both major parties, and corporate-sponsored PR published under the facade of a news article. But a recent study of biases present in the BBC’s coverage of UK politics may help us understand yet another major failing of our media. Journalists lack an understanding of basic economic principles, leading them to unwittingly flawed reporting.
The British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a report from Sir Andrew William Dilnot and Michael Blastland on biases in the BBC’s political coverage of the UK. The extensive report, published in November, found that BBC journalists often unknowingly made mistakes that contribute to biased or incomplete coverage of issues—particularly economic issues. Though the details of the study are UK-specific, the conclusions are relevant to understanding the failings of our own media class and how the media covers economic debates in Washington, D.C.
The most important of these conclusions is that journalists often lack sufficient grounding in economic subject matter. This ignorance can lead to flawed reporting, as the authors write: “We think too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence reporting it. This brings a high risk to impartiality.”
While ideologically-biased media certainly exists in the U.S., much of the biases progressives highlight in mainstream press may be a result of the banal fact that journalists focused on politics just don’t know much about economics. The study finds that it is from the basic lack of understanding that journalists perpetuate biases in their reporting. Similar issues in the U.S. result in millions of Americans (and D.C. insiders) consuming flawed news coverage from trusted sources every day. If the American media wishes to be a truly impartial news source it should seek to learn from the BBC. What follows are three key takeaways from the BBC study.
One of the most important conclusions of the study is that a lack of economic understanding means misunderstanding public debt. The summary of the study states that “some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realize this can be contested and contestable.”
As we approach the debt ceiling fight and Republicans return to their faux budget hawkery, media coverage will once again be centered around the national debt. Far too many reporters will unintentionally buy into the narrative that debt is bad, that future generations will be “burdened” with the obligation to pay off the national debt, and that debt for governments is similar to household debt. For journalists who do not understand economics it’s easy to conflate the burden of personal debt (bad) with the much more complicated issue of the national debt.
Media outlets should be working with experts to ensure their reporters are well-versed in the issue prior to discussing it with an audience. Similarly, outlets should seek to invite experts that can explain the stabilizing benefits of permanent national debt and how it functions in the economy. Budget hawkery is not the only side of debates regarding debt and media portrayals should reflect that.
Portraying political choices as inevitable results
Another issue highlighted by Dilnot and Blastland is the desire to portray economic decisions as inevitable natural laws. As they explain:
BBC journalists should exercise extreme caution before suggesting a government ‘will have to…’ raise taxes, cut taxes, cut spending, raise spending, cut debt, raise debt, etc.—in any area. These are choices. They may be choices with reasonable arguments in their favour, so might the alternatives… Too often, it’s not clear from a report that fiscal policy decisions are also political choices; they’re not inevitable, it’s just that governments like to present them that way.
Journalists have an obligation to help the public understand the choices politicians are making on their behalf. Buying into the inevitability framing—particularly with unpopular policy decisions—allows elected officials to escape responsibility for their decisions. This is often seen in conversations about entitlement reform, where cutting Social Security or raising the retirement age is framed as an inevitability and not the consequence of political choices. Any outlet seeking to be truly unbiased must explain alternatives to any policy. Economic policymaking is the allocation of resources—there is always another option on the table for those bold enough to voice it.
Failure to challenge assertions
Journalists lacking knowledge of economics often rely on respected economists or policymakers to help with their coverage. This extends past the TV talking heads to include quotes in articles and discussions on background. But this too can become a source of bias when journalists lack the knowledge required to push back against unfounded assertions or ideologically motivated statements.
In regards to this issue, Dilnot and Blastland say: “Sometimes, problems can be fixed simply by injecting a little context into an interview, to bring assumptions to the surface and make sure they’re challenged, to bring out a trade-off, to bring hype down to earth with a little proportion, and so on. But once again, to know what context you need it helps to be on top of the subject.”
If journalists are so unfamiliar with the subject matter as to not know how or when to push back against the assertions of an expert they are doing no better than replacing their ignorance with the biases of the person they are interviewing. When Larry Summers calls for massive unemployment in order to address inflation, reporters should be ready to question if that would be necessary (evidence shows it is not) and what might motivate him to prioritize addressing inflation over the well-being of American workers.
As Dilnot and Blastland say, economics is about tradeoffs. Journalists should press those they interview not only about those tradeoffs but also explain to the audience why a source might be predisposed towards one way or another (in the case of Summers it is clear that inflation is far more harmful to his Wall Street and Crypto buddies than high unemployment would be.)
In order to cover the ins and outs of Congress and the White House journalists need to improve their economic literacy. Their lack of knowledge leaves journalists unwittingly publishing biased reports, polluting the political ecosystem, and confusing the American populous. If they are truly as committed to impartiality as they claim to be, American journalists should take note of the BBC’s failures and seek to address them in their own institutions.