Skip navigation

Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Media, Film & Journalism Studies

News & Events


Featured Event

The Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecture: Featuring Dr. Dean Baker

Dean Baker's headshotOn January 30, the Departments of Media, Film & Journalism Studies and Economics hosted macroeconomist, former reporter, and DU alum Dean Baker (MA '83) as the 2018 Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecturer. Almost 100 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members attended Dr. Baker's lecture, titled, "The News on the Economy: It's Not What It Should Be." Morton Margolin's daughter, Merrie Margolin Kippur, his daughter-in-law, Denys Reid Margolin, and his grandson, Ben Reid, were also in attendance.

Beginning in 2015, the Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecture has been given each year in honor of renowned Colorado business journalism Morton Margolin. During his distinguished 35-year career as a journalist with the Rocky Mountain News and the Colorado Business Magazine (which he co-founded), Margolin received many awards, including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for his series of new stories exposing controversial U.S. reclamation projects in the Riverton, Wyo., area in 1952.

Prior to the Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecture Series, the University of Denver's School of Communication and the Daniels College of Business presented the prestigious Morton Margolin Prize recognizing Distinguished Business Reporting in Colorado from 1980 until 2008.

Dean Baker is the co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C. An accomplished speaker and writer who is committed to making economics issues accessible for policymakers and members of the public via books, commentaries, and blogs, Baker is credited as being one of the first economists to have discovered the 2007-2008 US housing bubble. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare, and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. His blog, "Beat the Press," provides commentary on economic reporting.

In his lecture, Dr. Baker spoke to journalists and economists alike, focusing on economic journalism and what is lacking in the field. He called upon journalists to use better techniques to translate economic policy and events into useful information for the general population, stating that it is "their responsibility to present news about the economy in ways that inform their audience and call attention to the most important developments that are likely to affect their lives at present or in the foreseeable future." He directly called out "elite news outlets" like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and National Public Radio, as carrying the blame for an ill-informed public.

Baker cited four very specific areas in which economic journalism has failed: the use of dollar amounts without context when speaking about the budget, the (continued) use of poorly chosen sources, the lack of context about the credibility of these sources, and the issues reporters choose to cover (or not to cover).

The trouble with listing dollar amounts in newspaper articles, according to Baker, is the lack of context. A $20 billion budget line sounds like a lot of taxpayer dollars to someone who doesn't have the time to read the budget proposal in full. In reality, $20 billion is only 0.6% of the total budget: not quite chump change, but not anywhere near the percentage that a reader may assume when hearing the dollar amount alone. Baker calls this usage of unexplained "really big numbers" negligent reporting: reporters are "supposed to be informing your audience. That's not informing anyone." Adding the context, even if just the percentages, Baker said, is "not a major research effort, it's simply doing their job."

One of the first economists to predict the 2007-2008 housing bubble, Baker said in his lecture that, while better reporting may not have prevented the bubble, "it would have helped." He cited the sources used again and again by journalists as part of the problem. Very few news outlets hinted at the possibility of a bubble, potentially because the main source on the housing market for many of these organizations was David Lereah, the chief economist with the National Association of Realtors: someone with a great deal to lose if the housing market slowed. Calling upon the same "usual suspects" again and again creates skewed and even biased reporting that, again, fails to properly inform the public. It may make the journalist's job easier, but it silences the voices of others experts and stakeholders.

Continuing in a similar vein, Baker called upon reporters to stop writing assumptions about the credibility of sources. Don't tell "readers what politicians or other public figures believe or feel," he said. "Just report what people say or do." He mentioned multiple recently published examples, where politicians who have actively campaigned against raising the budget deficit in the past are now appearing in articles that cite the individual's belief in the importance of tax cuts, despite the rising deficit. "Of course," Baker wrote in the pre-lecture paper that was sent out to all attendees before the event, "all these members of Congress may have just had a change of heart and decided that deficits really aren't all that important." But it's up to the readers to speculate on their motives, not the role of the journalists to tell us "what a particular politician 'believes' or 'considers' important." Journalists can never know for sure what the individual does or does not believe, so Baker asks that they just report the facts that are known.

Another major factor, according to Baker, is the stories that reporters choose to publish. His major example here was the stock market, which is reported on daily by every news outlet, as if it's the basis for the entire U.S. economy. It's related, he said, but not one and the same. It's certainly worth considering that maybe news outlets should spend a little less time on the stock market and a little more time on things that the average person cares about (or should care about but doesn't know that she should): unemployment, distribution of wealth, and the trade deficit, for example.

Baker concluded by saying that, in all fairness, economic reporting has improved over the past 20 years. He noted that a newer, younger generation of reporters is partly responsible, thanks to their diligence and their ability to break the mold of old-world journalism. The rise of the internet is also to thank, as it provides the general public with equal (and as immediate) access to the very documents on which newspapers are reporting. The general public is also now able to use this information to respond to reporting online (like Baker himself does with his blog), serving as a check against bad economic journalism.

The event concluded with a reception for Dr. Baker, where event attendees were able to ask him their questions and continue the discussion.