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Some Concrete Proposals for Economists and the Media

Thursday, December 1, 2016 12:40
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Simon Wren-Lewis:

Some concrete proposals for economists and the media: You can now listen to my SPERI/New Statesman prize lecture in full here, or even watch it all here. The talk looks at recent UK history, involving austerity and Brexit, to argue that there are serious problems in how the broadcast media treats economics.[1] The two main problems I talk about are exclusion and balance. Exclusion, where academic economists are simply ignored because they are not part of the Westminster bubble, can lead journalists to assume statements made by politicians are true even though an economist knows they are false or at least highly questionable. I give a number of examples in the talk… Balance is where a view that represents a consensus among academic economists is treated as just another opinion, to be balanced by the opposite view. This simply devalues knowledge. …

Solutions to these problems must start with academic economists themselves. It is asking too much to expect journalists to know whether a view put forward by an economist represents a consensus among academics or an idiosyncratic view. An obvious way to remedy this is through regular, topical polls of as many academic economists as possible. (I prefer this approach to sampling selected academic ‘leaders’…) … What these establish is whether a consensus exists or not on key issues. They are much better at doing this than letters to newspapers.

The reason why this is far better than getting more academics on programs like Newsnight (not that I have any problem with that) is that it can then prevent the problem of balance. I use in the talk the example of climate change to show how the broadcast media could treat a consensus view among economists (90% or more agreement) as knowledge, not as simply an opinion to be balanced against another. Getting the broadcasters to do that will not be easy… Our target audience should not be Newsnight but the 6pm or 10pm news programs, which may be the only non-partisan news that readers of the right wing press ever see. We need political correspondents to routinely say what the economic consensus is, and use it to interrogate politicians when they deviate from it. …

Only once this pressure is brought to bear on the media will we see the media begin to improve its own capability in the area of economics. …

The broadcast media should be a defense against populism, not the means by which populism takes hold. If you treat knowledge as just an opinion, of course people will vote for whatever sounds good to their ears. …

We cannot expect people to make sensible decisions about these issues if expertise on these issues (not just economic, but legal, constitutional etc) is kept locked away in specialist programs they will never see, or ignored altogether. We must stop allowing politicians to dictate what is knowledge and what is just an opinion.
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[1] The lecture and this post are about the UK. Although the general points I make about expertise are universal, my specific recommendations only apply to a broadcast media that is not under government control and is regulated to prevent partisan broadcasting. Although my knowledge of the US is far less, it seems to me the problems there are deeper still, particularly now we have a POTUS and Congress who show no respect for truth. …

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