Threading the “News Analysis” Needle

The lines between news and news analysis, and news analysis and opinion, are necessarily fuzzy. Most people would agree about the basic differences, but there’s going to be a lot of gray area.

It’s basically a spectrum: hard facts on one side, pure rant on the other. News analysis is somewhere in between, but there’s no real definition.

That’s why I think the Times’s David Leonhardt deserves credit for threading what I consider to be difficult needles in economics reporting.

This morning’s piece is a good example:

Judging Stimulus by Job Data Reveals Success

The baseline expectation for economics analysis, and that’s what this is, is that it be data-driven, not some rant. Leonhardt here says the data are in on the stimulus, and it worked:

Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.

I’m not as familiar with economics-research sources as he is, but I’ll take his word for it that those are the “best known,” which I think is the news-analysis way of saying, “most credible.” Everyone seems to buy that the CBO is credible, too.

Obviously, “stimulus” is as fraught a term on the political landscape as there is. But there you go.

Leonhardt has learned a few of the columnist tricks, like ducking behind past columns to show your objectivity.

Yet I’m guessing you don’t think of the stimulus bill as a big success. You’ve read columns (by me, for example) complaining that it should have spent money more quickly. Or you’ve heard about the phantom ZIP code scandal: the fact that a government Web site mistakenly reported money being spent in nonexistent ZIP codes.

And he acknowledges the program’s problems—but, importantly, doesn’t fall back into the mushy middle.

And many of the criticisms are valid. The program has had its flaws. But the attention they have received is wildly disproportionate to their importance.

The news analysis even goes after an opinion piece, on the WSJ Op-Ed page, no less, so it edges even further out onto the opinion spectrum.

The case against the stimulus revolves around the idea that the economy would be no worse off without it. As a Wall Street Journal opinion piece put it last year, “The resilience of the private sector following the fall 2008 panic — not the fiscal stimulus program — deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the impressive growth improvement.” In a touch of unintended irony, two of article’s three authors were listed as working at a research institution named for Herbert Hoover.

The headline on that piece was:

The Stimulus Didn’t Work

I think he at least offers a credible argument to what is an unknowable scenario:

Of course, no one can be certain about what would have happened in an alternate universe without a $787 billion stimulus.

Leonhardt’s conclusion has obvious policy implications, and he draws those, too.

So what now?

The last year has shown — just as economists have long said — that aid to states and cities may be the single most effective form of stimulus. Unlike road- or bridge-building, it can happen in a matter of weeks. And unlike tax cuts, state and local aid never languishes in a household’s savings account.


True, the analysis is restricted to the stimulus’s impact on jobs. Jobs are a big deal, but obviously there are other issues in play.

And this doesn’t prove it. I’m sympathetic to the argument, but, for all I know, the stimulus could be immensely damaging, even to jobs, in the long run. Another analysis could come along deconstructing it. But its sources would have to be as mainstream and as credible. At a minimum, the counter-analysis would have to go beyond Scott Brown’s, which Leonhardt cites:

As Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the newest member of Congress, said, in a nice summary of the misperceptions, the stimulus might have saved some jobs, but it “didn’t create one new job.”

The larger point is, readers are confronted with a blizzard of economics data, and, in this area, especially, news stories really aren’t enough. It’s good for an analysis to be fair, but it’s better to be fair and actually say something.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.