Economic reporting in the red: much ink, no insight

Mark Schacter

Mark SchacterThe background music to our federal election is the cracking and crumbling sound of the global financial edifice.  

I turn to the newspapers for perspective.  On October 8, six days before the polls, two questions were addressed prominently in The Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post:

(a) Does Stephen Harper have empathy?  
(b) Does Stephen Harper have a plan?

I was once a journalist, and I know they talk a good line about serving democracy by providing important information to citizens.  During an election campaign held amid economic turmoil, it would be helpful if journalists rose to that challenge. Sadly, they can’t curb their addiction to superficiality.  

“’Bargains’ in the stock market: Rivals slam Tory leader’s suggestion,” said a front-page headline in the Citizen.  We’re told the Prime Minister’s observation about buying opportunities created by the market’s plunge left NDP leader Jack Layton “shaking my head.” Indeed, what an awful man Harper is, pointing out what many people regard as blindingly obvious.

Deeper inside the Citizen a columnist said it bothers Canadians that Harper won’t “validate their fears.”  I see.  Do we want him to weep?  Look depressed? (Imagine the headline: “Harper ‘Weak’.  Lacks ‘Right Stuff’ to Lead Canada through Crisis.”)

Like the Citizen, the Globe and the Post worried about Harper’s empathy deficit.  “Harper needs to feel our pain,” said a page one headline in the Post, while the Globe’ s front page announced (shock!  horror!): “Harper offers policy, not an empathetic ear for Canadian concerns.”

Doesn’t that  Globe headline speak volumes about the state of Canadian journalism?  Offering policy over empathy in the midst of an economic crisis is portrayed as a failing. I guess empathy makes for better copy. Oh my.

My point isn’t to defend the Prime Minister (I won’t be voting Conservative.) My point is that we need better reporting. Why does election coverage during the most troubling economic time many of us have ever seen resemble something from Oprah? Do editors think this is what we want? Either they’re insulting our intelligence or abdicating their responsibility to rise above news as empty calories and give us nutritious food for thought.

Even when the subject seems more substantial, the storyline stays fluffy. Consider the question of whether the Prime Minister has “a plan” to deal with the economic crisis. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion criticized Harper for lacking a “plan.” This led to reports on the back-and-forth between Harper and the other leaders on who has a good plan.  

Guess what? Each leader thinks the other guy’s plan is no good! The Conservative plan is a mere “brochure,” said Dion, who prefers his own “five-point plan.”  Layton said Harper’s plan was “fundamentally wrong.” Harper said he’s had a plan all along, while the other parties “don’t really have a plan.”

Yes, reporters should tell us “what the leaders said”. But in a campaign, 90 per cent of that is rhetoric and repetition. Deal with that in a few paragraphs and use the rest of your news space to enlighten me. Describe what a good “plan” might look like. Consider whether it even makes sense to talk about a plan in a highly volatile situation. Detailed economic plans require detailed assumptions likely to be blown to bits before the plan is ready to be implemented. I want a leader who can improvise in rapidly changing circumstances, rather than one who would commit to build and implement a plan “no matter what”.

And then there is the D word – “deficit” – that causes special excitement among reporters.  Responding on October 6 to a question about plans for public spending, Harper innocuously said “there’s certainly nothing today that says we should go into deficit.”  This translated into a banner headline in the next day’s Globe stating that Harper “won’t rule out” a deficit.  The first six paragraphs of the front-page piece went on about whether he would or would not dip into the red.

Bottom line:  much ink, no insight.  Think about what could have been discussed.  Is a deficit necessarily a bad thing?  Are there times when running a deficit might be a wise course? And why would we want Harper to “rule out” having a deficit? Why should he (or any leader) commit to a course of action that circumstances might well overturn?

This election campaign demands thoughtful economic reporting, and we’re not getting it. Reporters think of themselves as asking “tough questions.” But if they want to be seen as more than transcription machines delivering empty “he said/she said” accounts of the campaign, they’d better start turning the tough questions onto themselves.

Mark Schacter runs an Ottawa-based consulting practice focused on governance,
accountability, strategy and other public management questions.  He is a former staff reporter at the
Wall Street Journal. His website is