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The U.S. Economy and Economic Policy Journalism

April 09, 2018
On April 9th, the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative hosted an interactive conversation on the state of the US economy and the direction of federal economic policy. This panel featured three top financial journalists: Binyamin Appelbaum, Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Jeanna Smialek, economic reporter for Bloomberg News; and Ryan Tracy, reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Peter Conti-Brown, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics at Wharton, moderated.

Professor Conti-Brown began by asking the journalists about their journey to finance and monetary policy starting from college. Tracy, a 2006 Penn Graduate himself, explained that his history major pushed him towards an internship at the Trenton Times after graduation. He later received his Masters in Journalism and has been based in Washington D.C. with the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswire for the last few years, covering energy policy and financial policy. Smialek, on the other hand, knew she was interested in journalism and policy early on and studied politics reporting with a focus on health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After interning on the economy coverage team at Bloomberg, she shifted focus and has been covering economics for the last five years, with a specific focus on the Federal Reserve for the last three. Appelbaum, a Penn Graduate and DP Staff Writer, fell in love with journalism and stumbled into reporting on banking and finance during one of his first jobs in Charlotte, North Carolina. He found himself reporting on the economy on the cusp of a historic crisis, and has focused on banking, regulation, and economic and monetary policy ever since.

Binyamin Appelbaum, Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Jeanna Smialek, economic reporter for Bloomberg News; and Ryan Tracy, reporter for the Wall Street Journal

Conti-Brown asked Tracy about a piece he had written called “Stress Test Inc.” on the “multibillion-dollar industry has developed around the annual exercise created to make U.S. banks stronger.” What had struck Conti-Brown about the article was the process of turning the complex ideas of stress tests, economic regulation, and the many stakeholders involved into a narrative. He asked Tracy whether or not financial journalism required narrative to grab the attention of readers, or if it was a gimmick. Tracy agreed with the challenge of getting people interested in more complex, esoteric topics, especially on the regulatory side of things where acronyms and jargon confuse people. This story came from wanting to draw public attention to the stress test results. “How do I write about this in a way that is interesting to people?” Tracy asked himself. “The interesting thing about journalism is tricking people into reading stuff that, at its face value, is kind of boring and that they might not actually click on…A big part of our job is finding the narratives.”

Smialek, an expert on the Federal Reserve System, has recently been focused on demystifying the governance of the institution – specifically regarding the twelve presidents of the regional Fed Banks and searches for new candidates as they occur. Conti-Brown asked her about what skills she uses to get people to pay attention to the politicking of opaque processes and explaining why it matters. Smialek explained that “really only since the financial crisis have we seen this big opening up of the Fed, and we are reporting on this institution that is at a complete crossroads when it comes to transparency.” The tension between transparency demanded by the public and internal resistance to change has resulted in Fed presidents being more open than ever before. Smialek elaborated on her “explainer style” technique of writing, using a Buzzfeed-esque approach to engage a lay-audience with titles like “Five Things to Know About the New York Fed’s Incoming President”. By utilizing multimedia, videos, landing pages and graphics, she continues to make “really wonky topics” easy and quick to understand.

Conti-Brown moved to discuss Appelbaum’s profile on Anat Admati, one of the most influential academics in the bank and policy space for her controversial views on the way that financial institutions structure their balance sheets. Appelbaum’s profile intertwined her policy views with her dynamic personality, and he discussed how much personality matters in telling finance related stories and in convincing an audience. “I think it is clear that people’s personalities play a huge role in shaping financial policy and shaping financial markets,” he said, referencing the behavioral economics and other predictably irrational ways humans make decisions. Appelbaum continued to discuss his profile of Admati, a Stanford professor who took an interest in banking during the financial crisis. Once she was able to explain her theory on debt financing to Appelbaum, he felt the burden of sharing her ideas to the world. “My job is to explain things to people, we are constantly grappling with things [we] don’t understand” he said, “I finally get this. I want to make sure everyone else does, too.”

Binyamin Appelbaum, Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Jeanna Smialek, economic reporter for Bloomberg News; and Ryan Tracy, reporter for the Wall Street Journal

The conversation shifted to “fake news” – a new term describing institutions that are meant to deceive, but frequently attached to pieces of journalism with which people disagree. Conti-Brown asked about how the reporting environment has changed in the last few years and probed about what “objectivity” and “truth” mean today. Appelbaum agreed that “these last couple years have been really strange and disorienting and difficult in a lot of ways. The rules that we all understood ourselves to operate under turned out to be norms, and unenforceable norms at that. We found ourselves in this very strange position of writing about people who are entirely indifferent to the truth.” He remembered presenting federal budget documents that did not mathematically add up to officials in Budget Office who did not acknowledge their errors. “I have never been in that situation of being able to say to someone ‘here’s a verifiable lie’ and have them ignore and be indifferent to that.”

Appelbaum continued, reflecting that objectivity in journalism is always a goal and not a reality. “My goal as a journalist is to write as clearly and as fairly as I can, and I think that part of fairness is pointing out when I understand something to be untrue.” Smialek emphasized the importance of representing the truth. “I do think there is a good thing that has come out of the dawn of this fake news era, [which is that] we are all being a lot more introspective about what is actually true.”

Tracy added that while journalists have not fully come to terms with the idea that they have been so vilified by politicians and populations across the country, they take their responsibilities within this fake news era seriously. “I think we can do a better job of showing our work,” he said, “we do operate by certain principals and standards, even if they are not formalized.” Perhaps a better understanding of these standards, and an explanation of how journalists arrive at the final stories they write, can help provide clarity in this time.

The panel concluded with advice for students whose words hope to shape people’s thoughts. “Stories really do reach people in a way that nothing else does. Telling people about ideas, through the lives of other people is a fundamentally human thing,” Appelbaum concluded.


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