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Thread: Hype and fear in the news

  1. #1
    Elite Member witchcurlgirl's Avatar
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    Default Hype and fear in the news

    Now that the House has rejected the $700 billion bailout, what we have to fear is not fear itself, but fear-mongering--particularly by our leading news organizations.

    Katie Couric opened the "CBS Evening News" last night with video of the House clerk declaring the 205-228 vote, and then she said, "That sets off the biggest decline in stock prices ever."

    Wrong.

    Brian Williams opened the "NBC Nightly News" with the same error, saying it was "the worst single day drop ever."

    These are not minor errors. They are profound, ridiculous, amateur-hour errors that surely frightened many people, especially in the context of the tone of the coverage. The stock market has had much bigger one-day declines. How about right after 9/11? How about 1987, when the Dow fell 22 percentage points, more than three times the slightly less than 7 percent drop Monday?

    ABC was almost as bad. Charles Gibson read from his teleprompter words that were technically accurate, but so misleading that the effect was to instill fear in the hearts of millions who did not catch the technicality. He reported "the biggest one-day point drop" in the stock market.

    That's scary unless you know what it means.

    As my friend Fred Brock, one of the best copy editors who ever worked at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, said when I read him the transcripts last night: "That doesn't mean anything; it's utterly meaningless."

    Stock indexes matter in terms of percentage changes, not point changes, because the base changes all the time. How many points an index like the Dow or the broader Standard and Poor's 500 went up or down compared to the day before, or over a week, or over another contracted time period is a legitimate measure when trying to figure out the short-term direction of the market. But when you are comparing it to trading from say 2001 or 1987 or 1929, counting points, instead of percentages, is absurd.

    My first thought when scanning the nightly news programs was that this was just another example of how journalists, broadly speaking, are innumerate and so errors pop up when it comes to numbers. But the subsequent words in the ABC and NBC reports made it clear that someone on the writing and producing staff knew just what they were doing. This was not an error; this was fear mongering.

    Williams, for example, reported in the first story segment that "stocks fell off a cliff, the largest single point drop in history." If someone knew enough to write "point drop," and later the correspondent Tom Costello used the right measure--the percentage drop--it suggests the writer of Williams' intro was more interested in hype than sober facts.

    Being technically correct while creating a false impression does not cut it for integrity, though. Gibson and Williams owe viewers an explanation and an apology tonight for misleading them. Even if they did not understand what they were reading, they are where the buck should stop.

    The broadcast networks were not alone. CNBC, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had bumpers with the "biggest one-day point drop" or some variation. This was especially surprising on Keith Olbermann's show since he is vigorous in expressing his views, but he also takes care to check the facts, especially when making fun of fact-free zones like "The O'Reilly Factor."

    But the most amazing misuse of this meaningless data point was on the front page of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, where the sober six-column format has been replaced this morning with big headlines and a story on the bailout that takes up the entire top half of the front page. The second graph of the lede story reads: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average sustained its biggest point drop in history and its biggest closing decline since the day the markets reopened after the Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attacks. ..."

    The New York Times, where I spent 13 years, got it right, though the tone--a two-deck, six-column wide headline--did not signal the kind of sober restraint to be expected in such uncertain times. The Times also relied on a broader and more useful gauge than the Dow, which has just 30 companies, to assess the market. The Times off-lede stated in its second paragraph, "The broad market as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index plunged almost nine percent, its third biggest decline since World War II."

    Fear can become a self-reinforcing mechanism. It can prompt people who would otherwise just sit tight to act irrationally. At responsible news organizations, zealous attention to detail is a core value. I have seen reporters and editors argue over commas, blowup over a sentence, and, once, a colleague slammed a fist into a wall.

    But this doesn't seem to be a priority right now. So, read the news skeptically. Very skeptically. And watch to see if Couric, Williams, and Gibson correct their bush league mistakes tonight.

    --David Cay Johnston

    David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his innovative coverage of our tax system, retired this year as a investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is the author of Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expenses (and Stick You with the Bill).

    Hype and Fear in the News - The Plank
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    Elite Member McJag's Avatar
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    I think what they were saying is that it was really bad. And it really was.
    I didn't start out to collect diamonds, but somehow they just kept piling up.-Mae West

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    Elite Member witchcurlgirl's Avatar
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    ^^Of course it's bad, but like everything else- terrorism- war- the toxins in your food- the killer lurking in your medicine cabinet-the media is insane.....

    but I have the advantage of living with an in house meter on the crisis.

    My SO is on Wall Street for 20 years, with a big firm that isn't and hasn't been involved with these deals. Of course he does business with these firms, so we get a lot of inside scoop. He was a little upset and crazed at work, very busy. But he's not freaking out. He's taking it pretty well. If he was freaked, I'd be more freaked.
    It's no longer a dog whistle, it's a fucking trombone


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    Elite Member MontanaMama's Avatar
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    It was amazing to watch that ticker drop like a stone. Yes. it is true that words have meaning and the words chosen "largest point drop in history" were factually and literally correct.

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    Elite Member tkdgirl's Avatar
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    I liked how the markets rallied yesterday.

    A government big enough to give you everything you want,
    is strong enough to take everything you have. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    Elite Member Grimmlok's Avatar
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    yeah, see the other thread for why that doesn't mean squat.
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    Elite Member lurkur's Avatar
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    Yes, it's funny to see the reporters going on and on about worst day ever, the economy headed for the drain, banks and business failing left and right.

    And yet they tell us not to panic, leave your money where it is.

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    Elite Member nana55's Avatar
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    Well if they didn't use ratings for the news, just allowed every station to have non-rated news show this wouldn't happen. Or, have a set price for all advertsing on the news stations so they wouldn't be tempted to get viewers with scare tactics. It's a business like it or not.
    If I can't be a good example, then let me be a horrible warning.

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    Elite Member louiswinthorpe111's Avatar
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    There HAS been a lot of hype over the past year. Case in point:

    I hate Jean Chatzky. She's always on the Today show, running off at the mouth. Anyway, 3-6 months ago she's all doom and gloom saying if you don't have a 720 credit score, you can't get a mortgage. Now being in the mortgage business, I almost threw my hair brush at the TV, and I did yell "Liar" because I was doing mortgages for people with 560 & 580, and very good rates between 6.5-7.25%.

    Now, it's people like this, who don't know the ins and outs of the Industry, but pretend like they do so they can sell books, the help fuel the hype. This made many people gun shy and help increase the uneasiness that we are consumed with today.

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    Gold Member eeyore0101's Avatar
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    My husband and I were discussing this last night - we remember the 87 drop (was in college) one in the mid nineties, the 9/11 drop (got our margins called after borrowing from our investments, which then dwindled to 0 - ouch - learned my lesson on borrowing on margin) and here we are again. Its cyclical, and recovery does happen, but each time it seems the news exploits it AS THE WORST EVER. And I think a lot of the younger generations don't remember or weren't around at all for the ones in the past so of course this seems new and the worst ever. Not saying it's not bad, it waaaaay sucks, but it has happened before and will happen again in the future. All we can do is muddle through as we have before.

    The news media sucks for creating panic and hysteria for ratings.
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    Quote Originally Posted by eeyore0101 View Post
    My husband and I were discussing this last night - we remember the 87 drop (was in college) one in the mid nineties, the 9/11 drop (got our margins called after borrowing from our investments, which then dwindled to 0 - ouch - learned my lesson on borrowing on margin) and here we are again. Its cyclical, and recovery does happen, but each time it seems the news exploits it AS THE WORST EVER. And I think a lot of the younger generations don't remember or weren't around at all for the ones in the past so of course this seems new and the worst ever. Not saying it's not bad, it waaaaay sucks, but it has happened before and will happen again in the future. All we can do is muddle through as we have before.

    The news media sucks for creating panic and hysteria for ratings.
    Very true. Large gains have been made after every other one on those black days.

    However, this isn't a new media phenomenon, most days Fox and the conservatives are beating the Terrorism threat dead horse to equine jerky trying to instill fear in the masses. Have we actually had another realistic terrorist threat since 9/11? Nope, they've been gaming the system.

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