- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

Alarming statistics, Bernard Madoff’s shamefaced perp walk, big policy, political discord, tragic vignettes - in all its complexity, the nation’s economy has provided a huge challenge to the press.

“Journalists can talk the public into a deeper recession and worse economic times in the same way they can scare people by incessantly covering crime, terrorism or school security,” said Al Tompkins, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute.

“This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cover these things. But the press must keep in mind the tone, degree and context of their coverage - like avoiding subjective adjectives that connote opinion. How many times has the terms ‘crash’ and ‘bloodbath’ been used? Give us the truth and leave the opinion to interview subject,” Mr. Tompkins said.

Is the public buying such talk? Maybe.

“Just 23 percent believe the nation’s professional reporters and commentators try to present an accurate picture of the economy,” said a Rasmussen Reports survey conducted in late February, with Republican respondents far more suspicious of the coverage than Democrats.

Another Rasmussen survey conducted March 7-8 found that 53 percent of Americans now think the U.S. could enter a “1930’s-like depression” in the near future.

Yet the grim situation does not preclude political bias, some say.

“The media isn’t shying away from economic bad news. It’s telling the public about the bad statistics. But it’s very hesitant to associate any bad news with [President] Obama’s policies or speeches or decisions. That includes the dismal sinking of the Dow Jones average,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.

“They have employed all of Obama’s lingo. They use terms like ‘stimulus package’ and ‘recovery plan’ without any quotes or ironic distance. They continue to use the sales language they employed during the campaign, that Obama is basically a detergent that removes all odors and brightens your colors,” Mr. Graham said.

He cited ABC’s Diane Sawyer in particular, who recently told her audience, “This morning, the confidence coach takes charge. The president himself challenges a weary nation to buy stocks as the first stimulus shovels plow the ground.”

Economic coverage, meanwhile, trumped all other popular topics - from Mr. Obama to Rush Limbaugh - in the past four weeks, according to an analysis from the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). Accounts of the White House stimulus plan, banking bailout, stock market woes, housing crisis and unemployment accounted for almost half the “news hole” in print, broadcast and online.

“Aside from the sheer gravity of the situation - comparisons to the Great Depression are increasingly creeping into the media narrative - the other striking feature in the coverage is the complexity and breadth of the economic problems, which also suggest a story with massive staying power,” said PEJ analyst Mark Jurkowitz.