In a 1998 interview with this magazine, Fed Governor Laurence Meyer was asked if he could recall any instances when the media misinterpreted his message. "There are many," was his reply, and he went on to describe a few of those incidents.
Doubtless many Fed officials—and others involved with economic policy—would have the same response. As economic news has gained prominence in recent years, more reporters have been asked to become instant experts on such issues as interest rates, labor markets, trade balances and many more arcane topics. To be fair, these reporters are often dealing with economists and policymakers who, for various reasons, don't make the media's job any easier: Obscurity sometimes rules the day. And I include the Fed in this indictment. Despite our attempts at furthering transparency over the years—from same-day announcements of FOMC decisions in Washington, to district-level public affairs efforts like this magazine—the Fed is not always viewed as a model of clarity. We'll keep trying.
And one of the ways this bank will attempt to improve the reporting of economic news is to help educate the reporters; specifically, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Journalism Center at the University of Minnesota have formed a partnership to develop a course on economics for practicing journalists. This course is still in its planning stages, but we do know that the first gathering will occur in the fall of 2000 and will include the top journalists working the economics beat. These select journalists will not only benefit from classes with influential instructors, but will also—based on their insights about the business of economic reporting—help establish the program for years to come. The course will become an annual affair and will be limited to a relatively small number of journalists, selected by application. This whole process will be directed by the Minnesota Journalism Center, which is the outreach arm of the U of M's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Minneapolis Fed will serve as an adviser.
The idea for this economics course for journalists sprung from a national conference on economic literacy in May 1999 that was held at this bank. Among the many suggestions for improving the economic literacy of the American people, some dealt with the role and impact of the media. In particular, a panel of newspaper reporters held forth on the subject and conceded that newspapers could certainly do a better job at conveying economic information, but part of the problem is that reporters may not be well-versed in economics. And this is true of all reporters, not just those on the business beat—government and political reporters, for example, could likely benefit from a better understanding of economic principles.
With the input of some of the best journalists in the field, and with the expertise of the Minnesota Journalism Center, we hope that this training program will not only serve to improve the media's handling of stories relating to the economy, but will ultimately serve to improve the economic literacy of the general public. That's a tall order, to be sure, but that's no excuse for not trying. Along with this bank's other efforts at improving economic literacy—the above-mentioned conference, special issues of this magazine, a high school essay contest and an assortment of other programs—this proposal for journalism training is a good fit. We'll keep you posted.