Media and economics

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With all of the discussion about media reporting in the election, I wanted to reflect upon a positive experience I had this week in the US that demonstrated what reporting could be.

I have done a ton of media interviews, both on radio and for newspapers, in conjunction with Parentonomics. Most are of the “aren’t economists wacky” mode which can be fine but either lends itself to ridicule or a lack of seriousness. This week I did a long interview for National Public Radio in the US. I was contacted some weeks ago by a reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt. I had actually heard of her having been a regular listener of the Planet Money podcast for about two years. She was interested in the economics of allowances and I guess I was the go-to academic on such issues. There wasn’t much science to it despite a few studies in the Journal of Economic Psychology trying to understand whether pocket money had any effect: bottom line — it is hard to tell. There was certainly no facts and figures on the amount of pocket money kids get, etc.

Nonetheless, I could provide the theory and certainly reflect on my own experience on that. The end result was an hour in the studio alongside my 11 year old daughter to provide her perspective. It was a setting that could easily have devolved into a less serious piece that might have been amusing but little else.

But listen to the podcast. The basic angle is that economists complain all of the time that Governments never quite do what they want and if only they did things would be great. What happens then when an economist has control over his own little economy in the home? He runs into all of the same things that make economic policy hard to do in a democracy and for much the same reasons.

Now the podcast is light in tone but Joffe-Walt did many days of work and research on it and so was able to, in very short order, link parenting issues to serious economic issues. I was quite impressed with the end result and, indeed, wished I had thought of that angle when writing the book.

The point here is that when journalists complain that they have to do pieces under time pressure, I suspect that it does cause a large reduction in quality that they might otherwise achieve. Planet Money does a couple of podcasts a week using a team of three or four. So their story rate is well below what we put any of our journalists through in reporting for Australian newspaper, radio, the web and television. The end result is seriously high quality. I knew that before from Planet Money which is why I have listened to it but to see it put together from the inside was revelatory.

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