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What Ordinary People Can And Cannot Tell Us

John Smith used to be a director of marketing, or a recruiter, or a software developer at a major corporation. Now he is applying for food stamps, or working at Starbucks, or going back to school, or starting his own business.

We have not had enough of those stories in the news, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism asserted in a recent report.

According to Pew’s study of media coverage of the economy in the first half of 2009, only about 5 percent of economic storylines focused on average Americans, compared to 15 percent for “bailout and banking.”

While the report purports to merely give the facts about what has been covered and what has not, it is tinged with judgment. We are told, for example, “Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.”

When The New York Times reported on the study, it, too, seemed to be critical of the trend the report revealed. The Times summarized the report by saying that, “government, Wall Street and a small handful of story lines got the bulk of the attention while much less was paid to the economic troubles of ordinary people.”

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew project, speculated that part of the reason for the greater focus on institutions as opposed to ordinary individuals was that it is easier for the national news media to cover Washington “than to fan out around the country and measure the impact on real lives.”

But it seems to me that covering the big picture and conveying the complicated and often conflicting statistical signals about what is really happening out there is hard work, and that’s the work that financial journalists should be doing. The Pew study seems to indicate that, for the most part, they are.

While nearly all of us have been affected by the recession in one way or another, we won’t learn very much about why our lives changed in the ways they did by reading about other people’s individual experiences. We need the bigger picture that allows us to put our own anecdotal knowledge into a meaningful, less personal, context.

Individual stories are often interesting, and they can be useful tools to illustrate some aspects of the economy. But over-reliance on personal stories in coverage of the recession can mislead audiences into thinking that those profiled in news stories are a representative sample of the population. When reporters go out to find stories, even stories about ordinary people, they look for narratives that are interesting and compelling, though not necessarily representative. No one, given the assignment, “Write about how the recession is affecting ordinary people,” will write a piece about the person who has kept his or her job, who continues to pay the mortgage and is not in danger of foreclosure, and who continues to look calmly or even optimistically toward the future.

We should have learned that it’s a bad idea to generalize based on misleading samples back in 1936. That year, the esteemed Literary Digest predicted Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the presidential election. In previous elections, the Digest had correctly called the winners by sending out huge numbers of surveys and tabulating the results. However, the mailings only went to people whose addresses the Digest could easily locate, and in 1936 that meant those who were listed in telephone books or had automobile registrations. The rest of the country, those who could not afford cars or telephones amid the Great Depression, didn’t vote in the poll. But they did vote in the election, and the great majority of them voted for Roosevelt.

Looking only at those whose personal stories make for good news articles, without viewing those stories in light of aggregated statistics, is like relying on a poll that only sends surveys to one segment of the population. Just as the Digest saw the America of 1936 through a distorted prism, those who read only stories about “ordinary Americans” (whose situations are interesting enough to attract news coverage) may see a picture that is not ordinary at all.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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