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When it comes to the economy, America’s newspapers may be failing their readers. A new report by the National Journal confirms that our major papers have dramatically decreased their coverage of the country’s enormous unemployment problem, while at the same time sharply stepping up their coverage of the important but less immediately urgent problem of Federal deficits. As a result, Washington is gripped by an artificial crisis while a real one is ignored.

The question is why? Why have politicians and the media allowed our nation’s unemployed to become the Invisible Americans? Their premature obsession with deficits makes it politically impossible for the government to invest in fixing the problem. Fixating on deficits while millions are out of work is like worrying about water damage while your house is still on fire.

In what may be a related development, the public now rates newspaper reporters lower than bankers for “honesty” and “ethical standards.” Bankers. That may not a fair judgment, but it’s one that only reporters and their editors can change.

Here’s what the National Journal found:


Mentions of unemployment reached a peak of 154 in a month for four major newspapers – the Washington Post, New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – and then declined sharply. But even as the story of 25 million un- and under-employed Americans dropped off the radar, coverage of the deficit surged to 261 mentions in December 2010 – far more attention than was ever paid to joblessness.

To be fair, in one sense this imbalance is understandable. Politicians have been pushing the deficit issue relentlessly, and most of them have been ignoring jobs. It’s much easier to cover a political brawl than it is to keep reporting on a grim topic that lacks champions in Washington and state capitals. But it becomes a chicken/egg problem: political debate drives newspaper coverage, and newspaper coverage drives political debate. Newspapers have an obligation to break that cycle by reporting on the facts, not just the debate.

There’s more to the news than keeping score on today’s political catfight. Although this country has a long and honorable tradition of brilliant and dedicated journalism, it’s becoming rarer in today’s economic coverage. There are exceptions, of course, including the fine work of reporters like Catherine Rampell and John Leland at the New York Times. But when the nation’s major newspapers overlook the unemployed, they’re ignoring reality for millions of Americans — as well as their families, friends, and communities.

When you ignore the unemployed, two terrible things happen. One is that the public is deprived of the information it needs, and the political debate is skewed in the wrong direction. The other is psychological. By treating jobless people as if they were invisible, their trauma becomes deeper. I learned that about people facing foreclosure when I wrote several pieces about them recently and received some heartbreaking emails as a result. (One comment, from a single mother who struggled with thoughts of suicide: “Your article is like morphine to the dying. All this time, I blamed myself.”)

In the interests of objectivity, the National Journal observes that “to be fair, the decline in unemployment articles coincided with a one-half-percentage-point decrease in the headline unemployment rate as well as materially better payroll job growth.” But those official rates don’t reflect discouraged workers, which are an important and under-reported part of the story.

Unintentionally or not, this shift from unemployment to deficits reflects and serves the vested interests of a powerful elite. That isn’t just rhetoric. Immediately after the November 2010 election, polling showed that only four percent of voters polled thought that the deficits should be Congress’s first priority, while more than ten times as many people – 46% of those polled – thought that jobs and economic growth should be given the highest priority.

The public’s preference closely mirrors what many of our top economists believe must be done: First, encourage government investment to rebuild the economy and put people back to work. Once that’s accomplished, turn and address the deficit (especially tax cuts, two wars, and runaway health care costs). But political debate and newspaper coverage both continue to focus on deficits and give little more than lip service to jobs, wage stagnation, and other economic issues.

Instead, newspapers are focusing their attention (and ours) exactly where many powerful interests want it focused. Ideologues like billionaire Pete Peterson have spent great sums of money to promote the idea that the Federal deficit is our most urgent priority. So have our largest corporations, through lobbying vessels like the United States Chamber of Commerce. A focus on unemployment would lead to talk about government spending to create jobs and growth, which in turn would lead to talk of taxing the wealthy. It’s better for some people if the subject never comes up.

But newspapers have an obligation to ferret out the truth, even if (especially if) that brings up uncomfortable topics. By reflecting the elite’s emphasis on deficits, newspapers are creating a more hospitable climate for policy decisions the public strongly opposes, such as cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (See the American Majority Project for more polling data on entitlements, deficits, and related issues.)

After two years of a relentless press and political drumbeat, 71% of those polled by the Pew Research Center now say that the deficit is a major problem. But only 24% consider it the nation’s top economic worry. By contrast, 38% say jobs are the country’s biggest problem and 28% are most concerned about rising prices.

The National Journal figures should be read in that light. America’s newspapers aren’t reporting on the stories that affect their readers most deeply. Their coverage reflects an artificial, interest-group-driven set of priorities rather than those of their audience.

The government isn’t reflecting the public’s priorities either, which may help explain why public trust in government has reached record lows and more than 70% of people in a post-election CBS News poll described themselves as either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with government.

By mirroring the Beltway’s indifference to the public’s priorities, American newspapers run the risk of incurring a lot of the same anger. And they’re not starting from a position of strength. Public confidence in American newspapers are the lowest they’ve been since 1991, according to Gallup’s polls. The public now rates newspaper reporters lower than bankers for “honesty” and “ethical standards,” according to another Gallup poll.

In a related study, the Pew Research Center found that the public’s assessment of media accuracy is the lowest it’s been in two decades. But maybe the problem isn’t so much one of accuracy as it is emphasis. Maybe some of them are simply aware that the reality they see reflected in print isn’t the reality they’re living in every day.

Reporters can take comfort in the fact that they’re still more trusted than car salesmen or members of Congress. But they deserve better. The journalists I know are a brave and conscientious group of people. Journalists – and more importantly, their editors – should take this as a sign that they have a serious problem to address. Newspapers need to spend less time reflecting truth as the powerful would have us see it, and more time telling truth to power.

This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

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