More Journalism On Regulation Needed

Journalists need to do a better job covering regulatory agencies.

One of my classes this semester is a seminar called “Journalism of the Economics Crisis,” taught by Phillip Bennett, the Managing Editor of PBS’s Frontline. The reading list for the class is pretty incredible – when Michael Grunwald’s “The New New Deal’ is on the list, you know it’s going to be a good class. And one of the best parts of the class is that Professor Bennett has been able to get a few journalists to talk to our class via Skype. The first one was last Monday when Binyamin Appelbaum from the New York Times took a half hour out of his day to answer a few of our questions. He offered a number of interesting answers on economic journalism in general, QE3 and housing.

But what struck me most was a question I asked him about the media’s covering of regulation. Here’s how I see it:

Regulation is immensely important but very little of the media’s coverage focuses on it. Many regulating agencies perform vital jobs in our society. Imagine our health without the Food and Drug Administration. How many people really know how the FDA works though? What it really does? How much it actually protects us? There are many agencies like this. Now, it’s okay that people don’t really know what they do. If these agencies are working correctly, that’s exactly what should happen. But when Republicans start looking to cut the funding of the FDA and other important agencies, it becomes more important.

Which brings me to my main point: we need more coverage of regulating agencies. More coverage of these will mean greater knowledge of what these agencies do. With that greater knowledge, the public has a better ability to make an informed choice about them. Greater coverage of these agencies will also ensure that they are operating correctly.

Until listening to Appelbaum’s answer to my question, I always believed that journalists simply didn’t like covering regulatory agencies. And to an extent, I think that’s correct. Regulation is boring and wonky. It deals with minutiae in legal speak. That’s not particularly enjoyable to cover. But beyond that, Appelbaum said that covering these agencies is easier said than done. Connecting regulation to the real world is difficult, particularly before regulations take effect. I think this goes a step further: regulation is tough to connect to the real world until something goes wrong.

It’s not something that I had fully thought about until class last week but it makes sense. Who wants to read about a regulatory agency that is supposedly preventing some potential, unknown crisis? That’s not going to draw readers to a newspaper so editors are not going to want those stories. Journalists aren’t going to gain any attention from such articles. There just isn’t a place for successful regulatory agencies in the press.

But there is an in between option between covering these agencies and not covering them: cover the ones that aren’t doing their jobs. That sounds pretty obvious but it’s not. Regulators failed before the financial crisis. Too many just overlooked the housing boom, not really tuning in to it. This coincides with another article I read for class today (I said the reading list was great).

Dean Starkman wrote a piece  in mid-2009 for the Columbia Journalism Review on the media’s coverage of the financial crisis and whether business journalists failed the public. His conclusion was that they did:

[A]s corruption heated up, business-news coverage generally downshifted into what I call service and consumer prices…[R]egulators and lawmakers did have information they could have used had they wanted to. So shame on them. These are valuable stories. But to get the public involved you need more. You need stories of institutionalized corruption. There’s no way around it

That’s exactly correct. Corruption will grab viewer’s attention and help the system function correctly. Hopefully, there is not a lot of regulatory corruption, but when there is, the media must find it, dig up the details and reveal it to the public. In order to fulfill their watchdog role, journalists must be on top of these agencies and ask questions when things don’t make sense. As we have seen from this past crisis, such questions are incredibly important. If the media does not start asking them, I fear that another crisis is not far off. (Image via)



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