The weather/climate bias

August 24, 2017
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Ben and Simon complain about the BBC’s unbalanced coverage of Patrick Minford’s Brexit fantasies. I sympathize. I suspect this was due to the BBC being so desperate to avoid the allegation of being biased against Brexit that it toppled over too far the other way. Such an error is in theory easily remediable.

I fear, though, that there might be a more insidious bias at the BBC, which arises from the very nature of news itself – a tendency to report the weather rather than the climate.

What I mean is that economic “news” consists of reports of high-frequency events: changes in share prices, inflation, unemployment and so on. What this ignores are slower moving changes which are in fact of much greater significance, such as: the decade-long stagnation in productivity and GDP per head; the slowdown in world trade; job (pdf)polarization; the combination of savings glut, shortage of safe assets and slowdown in capital spending that have led to negative long-term real interest rates; and the flat Phillips curve which signals that workers lack (pdf) bargaining power.

Under-reporting of these developments is not merely an intellectual error which creates a bias against understanding. It leads to systematic distortions.  One is a failure to appreciate the extent to which the economy is failing ordinary working people. The other is excessive sympathy towards fiscal austerity, the case for which is gravely undermined by stagnant demand and negative real interest rates.

These biases are exacerbated by three others. One, as Jon Snow has said, is that senior broadcasters are out of touch with “ordinary” people. They don’t therefore understand the extent to which a few pounds make a huge difference to material and mental well-being, and so under-appreciate the importance of slow-moving developments which trap people into low incomes.

A second is a failure to make connections. People are generally bad at linking economic events. In particular, journalists have under-appreciated the tendency for economic stagnation to foster intolerance. The economic climate influences the political climate. In not making this connection, the importance of economics is under-rated.

A third is what I’ve called a bias against emergence. Journalists like human interest stories – somebody to praise or blame. But the developments I’m thinking of aren’t such stories. No single person is to blame for stagnation, negative rates and job polarization. They are complex stories. Reporting them doesn’t fit the standard template of what constitutes journalism.

My point here is a simple one. Media bias isn’t simply due to reporters being incompetent or right-wing gits – though some are. It can also arise unintentionally.

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