A Recession by Any Other Name

January 23, 2023
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Lately, journalists covering the economy have been struggling to find the right words to describe it. “Unpredictable” comes to mind. “Chaotic.” “Weird.” The International Monetary Fund said that “2023 will feel like a recession.” A top economist told the press to expect a “slowcession.” At the start of the New Year, when a jobs report came out, the stock market went up. Nick Timiraos, a finance reporter who covers the Federal Reserve for the Wall Street Journal, said, “It’s not our job to make predictions.” Still, reporters are having trouble making sense of the present.

​​“Right now, covering the US economy is more challenging than it’s ever been,” Shawn Donnan, a reporter for Bloomberg News, said. “Data is pointing in multiple directions. You can look at parts of the economy that look very strong and others that look very weak.” The housing market appears to be in a recession, he explained. “But there are other parts of the economy that are going very well.” The hospitality industry has made positive gains; last month, the Journal reported that consumer spending increased as inflation eased. Donnan has covered the economy for more than two decades—and even so, he said, “it’s hard to figure out where that is going and the story it’s telling you.”

Typically, Emily Stewart, a finance reporter with Vox, associates a recession with two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the gross domestic product. That happened last summer, but Stewart wrote that a recession “is very unlikely to be the case” and characterized the situation as a “bad vibes economy.” Recently, she wrote that “a major economic contraction doesn’t appear to be here—yet.” Her reasoning: “I look at a mix of data and talk to people,” she said. “I also look at the labor market for layoffs, things like that. I talk to experts, economists, and regular people. I ask things like, What’s it like at work?” She has avoided stating that we are in a recession, or that there will be one, because “it’s not my place to do so, and it’s not really clear what’s coming next.” 

Arthur Delaney, a politics and the economy reporter for HuffPost, said he is focusing on the Federal Reserve’s response to inflation. He defers to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which weighs a variety of factors, defining a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months, with a major impact on payroll employment.” Delaney noted, “They never say it right when it happens. They look at months of data and make an announcement after we have been in a recession. So an individual journalist can’t really say whether we’re in one or not, since there’s an official recession scorekeeper.”

Some reporters have sought clarity in unconventional places. “We started looking at things like restaurant reservations, flight data, and the number of people who go through TSA checks,” Donnan said. “There are even companies out there that use satellite tracking to see how empty the parking lots are at stores.” But the results can lead to contradictory conclusions. To contextualize his findings, Donnan said, he has been focusing on the structure of the economy—and who stands to gain or lose from different trends. “Our job as journalists is to examine who is benefiting and who is being left out.”

Annie Lowrey—who has reported on the economy and finance for fifteen years, and is now at The Atlantic—has opted to focus on individual businesses and people instead of looking at the economy as a whole and judging whether the country is in recession. (“I don’t think we’re seeing that now,” she said.) The health of the economy can feel different from place to place. “I’m in San Francisco, where the economy is pretty out of step with where it is in the rest of the United States,” she said. “We’ve had a really precipitous decline in home prices. It’s a funny kind of situation out here in tech—where it’s not like San Francisco is stacked with unemployment, but it’s a much more difficult environment than it had been a year or two ago.”

Perhaps the most challenging part about reporting on the economy now, Delaney said, is that it tends to “get boring.” He added, “We have been in the same economic situation, as far as we can tell, for, like, a year. The stories can be very repetitive, and it’s hard to find new ways to describe things.”

When in doubt, there’s the completist approach. “You want readers to be able to have the best information they can have to make informed decisions about their own lives—and oftentimes there’s a lot of disagreement among economists,” Timiraos said. “So you want to try to provide a few different perspectives. And if only one of them ends up being right, at least you’ve helped people understand what are the different ways in which something might play out.” He avoids drawing his own conclusions, he added: “Once I form an opinion, I might only focus on reporting that confirms that.”

Donnan, too, resists declarations. “I have learned to take things said by anyone who is very confident about the direction of the economy with a grain of salt,” he said. “Most of them have been wrong.” 

Mercy Tonnia Orengo is a CJR fellow.