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Good news/bad news

The public in these depressing times wants happier tales, but journalists must give them the hard truth too.

March 28, 2009

Journalistic trend-spotters say the recession is whetting the public's appetite for happier stories from their daily news outlets. After all those reports about foreclosures, layoffs and bailouts, audiences are clamoring for more pennies from heaven -- tales of good Samaritans, thriving new businesses and trend-bucking investments. It's a lament familiar to us nattering nabobs of negativism. We hear it in good times too.

Those of us who are left in this business (there's that negativism again) would like to oblige, but that isn't really what the Fourth Estate gets paid to do. We're supposed to document what's new, of course, including successes as well as failures. But we're also expected to question the powerful and hold them to account. When we don't -- when we aren't tough enough or brave enough to find the error in popular policies -- we end up with misbegotten wars, ruinous asset bubbles and other avoidable disasters.

So journalists feel compelled to be skeptical, and to focus on potential harms more than the likely benefits. It's far better for us to be proved too critical than to be seen as cheerleaders for policies or politicians that go bad. And yet the news media's skepticism is frequently shallow and reflexive, which doesn't serve the public well either. Journalists often invest too little time and resources to dig up the truth that powerful corporations and public figures are burying. As the subprime mortgage meltdown and the ensuing collapse of the credit markets illustrate, seemingly obvious problems can be shrouded in a fog of unfamiliar terms and practices. With Washington pumping trillions of dollars into the economy and the financial sector, now's the time for disbelieving, penetrating journalism.

"Good news" reporting can be valuable, lifting moods at a time when flagging public confidence is deepening the recession. But we find it comforting too when journalists do the hard work of exposing the rot under the rocks. Although we're not cheered by stories about banks using bailout money to snap up toxic assets that they can sell to the taxpayers, or executives at mortgage giants cashing out stock before their firms capsize, we'd still like to see more of them.

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