By Douglas K. Smith, Executive Director of The Punch Sulberger Program at Columbia School of Journalism
Words matter. Or, more to the point, the meaning of words matter. Take ‘unemployment’. Notwithstanding years of persistently pointing out that which is the Bureau of Labor Statistics U3 series, severely understates real unemployment, nearly all accounts, whether in mainstream media or alternative media, continue using U3. Ask all but the technically proficient what unemployment is today in the US, and you’ll hear 9.7% or 10% — not the 17% to more than 20% that more accurately describes the economy. Pundits and observers fret over how the culture seems to have just ‘accepted’ 10% unemployment as the new normal. Well, in part, this arises because of the ‘unemployment’ sleight of hand.
Were journalists practicing core journalistic values such as accuracy and objectivity, 9 out of 10 pieces would point to 17% to 20% un- and underemployment — and we’d then have a chance to see what the culture is ready to accept as ‘normal’.
This linguistic insanity extends far beyond unemployment. Consider another longstanding abuse of meaning now popping up again in the context of Ireland’s woes. In nearly every article and post about the Irish crisis — regardless of whether written by those for or against the specific measures — we keep reading that the steps being taken seek to save the ‘banking system’. This is the same phraseology that was and is on view in the US dating back to the dark days of October 2008.
As with ‘unemployment’, sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable people like Yves and so many of her readers and peers, understand that the core objectives at work are less about ‘saving the banking system’ than they are about three rather important ‘other things’: saving the TBTF banks, saving the bondholders and derivative gamblers and, perhaps mostly, about saving the highly interconnected dealer markets that are the cancer of the ‘free market’, deregulated ‘banking system’.
More than 99% of people — including those in government — are not sophisticated in financial matters. To them, the phrase ‘saving the banking system’ means saving the classic and now almost quaint role that banks play in financing the real economy as opposed to financing and participating in the casino that has engulfed financial markets. This means that every single time a journalist — whether mainstream, blogger or otherwise — describes steps taken in Ireland — or in Europe, the US or elsewhere — as directed at ‘saving the banking system’, readers and those to whom readers talk are entirely misled. Entirely.
To the likes of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke — as well as ECB president Jean Claude Trichet and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble — this is all like a good dream — either because (1) it enables their utter and cynical manipulation of meaning; or, worse (2) they are so cognitively captured that they, scary as it would be, cannot distinguish ‘saving the banking system’ from ‘saving the casino’.
It really shouldn’t be this hard. Yes, it can take some effort to understand the difference between, say, U3 and U6 unemployment. And, yes, it can take a bit of effort to see through ‘saving the banking system’ to the real objectives at hand. But, the journalistic solution that is actually quite cool not to mention convenient, can be found in links and widgets and macros and more. All journalists and the enterprises for whom they work need do is create an easily linked to library that, each time the words or phrases are typed, either substitute the far superior set of real meanings or, at least, allow readers to link to them.
Again, it is really not that hard. Yet, until we begin to see the actual meanings instead of the meaningless and misleading phrases, we’ll continue to walk blindly into what may be a dream for Geithner et al but is a nightmare for the rest of us.