A Big Omission at NBC

Whatever happened to Social Security?

NBC Nightly News took on retirement income the other day and found most Americans’s savings will come up short. The segment drew a bleak picture of the amount of money people have saved for retirement versus the amount they will need in the future. The picture was bleaker still because the story left out any reference to Social Security—even though for one-third of people who get Social Security, it accounts for at least 90 percent of their income. Not mentioning the role of Social Security gave viewers a skewed view of reality.

The media have not been fond of extolling any of Social Security’s virtues this past year, and the Nightly News piece was simply another in a long string of dubious journalistic efforts. It began with a tale about one Gloria Moss, an educated woman with a Ph.D, who had faithfully saved money in her 401(k) plan and thought she’d be retired by now. But Moss, age sixty-four, “received the shock of her life” when she visited a financial planner and found she had only half the money she needed to maintain her lifestyle in retirement.

NBC correspondent Lisa Myers reported that many baby boomers are in worse shape, noting that an average couple nearing retirement has less than one-fourth of what’s needed in their 401(k) accounts to maintain the same standard of living. For those lucky enough to have saved $1 million, that may not be enough either. “$1 million translates into $40,000 to $60,000 a year in retirement,” Myers advised. Nowhere does she mention that Social Security might help out the “poor” folks who can’t save a million bucks.

We don’t know how much Gloria Moss had squirreled away, or what her Social Security benefit would be, or even if she had taken it yet. So it’s impossible for viewers to see how bad her predicament is—but, bad enough, she told Myers that “those nice things that I looked forward to doing, like traveling, have had to be eliminated.” We learn more about Moss in a Wall Street Journal story that ran a week or so earlier. She works extra hours and contributes to her employer’s version of a 401(k) plan, but she doesn’t contribute the maximum and had to sell her condo by the sea and move to a cheaper house.

It looks to us that NBC did little reporting on its own but simply cribbed from the Journal. That’s the way the news biz works in this era of producing news on the cheap. Still NBC could have read the Journal’s piece a little more closely. The Journal did mention Social Security, noting that benefits will provide as much as 40 percent of preretirement income for a family with a median income—$87,700 in 2009—whose head of the household, age sixty to sixty-two, is nearing retirement. Social Security’s replacement rate is super important, a point that would have made the NBC segment better journalism.

The Journal reported “the median 401(k) plan held $149,400,” a number generated by the Retirement Research Center at Boston College whose director, Alicia Munnell, we featured in a Q and A conversation last fall. That number is for a household whose head is between sixty and sixty-two years old. When that sum is annuitized—that is, converted into a yearly income stream—it amounts to about $9,000 for the family. Not much to live on.

NBC picked up those numbers, but its script writer blew it, apparently not understanding the difference between the median and an average. Myers reported: “The average 401 (k) nest egg, (has) about $150,000, enough to generate about $9,000 a year in retirement.” For single people, the Center told me, the amount in 401(k) plans is even less. In 2007, the median balance was only $78,000 for individuals age fifty-five to sixty-four who are working.

“Experts say there’s a huge lesson here for the next generation,” Myers told viewers. There’s a huge lesson here for the media. We have to get it right.

Click here for more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,