- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

Clawback, zombie company, brickor mortis, stagflation. And don’t forget the inimitable “I kill you later.” Insider financial terms all.

But maybe not so “inside” anymore. President Obama may pine for a populist dialogue with the nation, but alarming economic news is filled with the acronyms and mottos of crisis, thanks to a confused press.

A study of 176 recent broadcast stories on the economy by the Business & Media Institute, a press watchdog group, found that just 2 percent of them explained the basic strategies of Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan. A Rasmussen Reports survey revealed that less than one-quarter of Americans believe journalists are presenting an accurate picture of the economy.

News is also subject to interpretation. A Pew Research analysis released Wednesday found that 65 percent of Republicans said that economic news was “mostly bad.” The number was 42 percent among Democrats, however.

Uneven coverage is prompting some repair work. Reuters news agency, for example, is now tracking the evolving lexicon of Wall Street parlance as a public service.

“The financial media have a responsibility to help our audience find its way through the blizzard of terminology this crisis has spawned,” said Dean Wright, global editor for ethics, innovation and news standards at Reuters.

The news service offers online definitions for the phrases du jour, which often appear willy-nilly in news coverage. For citizens who want to bandy about terms like “leads and lags” or “pump and dump” with authority, Reuters also has launched a financial glossary, an ongoing project that is open for public input, much like Wikipedia.

“By using language that is as clear as possible, I believe we can help investors and taxpayers more fully understand the global financial situation and the roles of government, business and individuals in solving it,” Mr. Wright said. The glossary “is very much a living document and will change as the language changes.”

“I kill you later,” incidentally, is actually a noun indicating losses from “derivatives contracts known as accumulators,” losses from which can come back to haunt people, according to a citation in Mr. Wright’s blog.

MSNBC and American University’s School of Communication, meanwhile, on Tuesday launched “Banktracker,” a collaborative online tool for the press and public that provides the financial dispositions - assets, income, losses, loans - of some 8,300 banks across the nation, based on FDIC data.

The news is not always good, they found, with “dangerous conditions” apparent in some of the institutions. The American Bankers Association opposes the release of such analytical data, claiming that the general public “might not be prepared to handle that information.”

That’s not necessarily so, said Wendell Cohcran, senior editor on the project. Policy debates and confusing terminology could become less so.

“We have a responsibility to help the public understand a very complex situation. We’re trying to peel away the mystique about numbers and use original source data to help people understand what’s happening - to give them some access. This is about transparency,” Mr. Cochran said.