Money, Markets & the News: Press Coverage of the Modern Revolution in Financial Institutions

In March 1999, the Shorenstein Center convened a conference of journalists, financial industry leaders, and policymakers to discuss the press’s coverage of the changes that have fundamentally reshaped American and global financial markets in the past 20 years. Gathering in Washington D.C., conference participants heard then-Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, Fannie Mae chairman Franklin Raines, and three panels of journalists, scholars and policymakers raise important –and often critical – questions about whether the press has helped the broader public understand and keep pace with those changes.

Secretary Rubin outlined three central factors in what he called the financial industry’s “revolutionary” transformation: globalization, deregulation and new technologies. Shorenstein Center lecturer in public policy Richard Parker then offered an in-depth look at how newspapers, newsweeklies and television have presented and interpreted those transformations. Parker concluded first that “personal finance” has become a driving new force in the field, interpreting an array of economic and business news in a “news you can use” format. Second, he concluded that much of the coverage of financial markets and institutions has been shaped by “crisis” framing. In both cases, he cautioned that citizens as a result may have a highly-skewed and ill-informed understanding of the driving forces in global economic life.

Jeff Madrick echoed Parker, chiding fellow journalists for their frequent lack of reportorial skepticism, and inadequately explaining – save in the aftermath – the risks that these new trends in global and American finance have brought. Brookings economist Robert Litan offered a policy advisor’s view. Though he found much that the press got right, he warned that the industry’s “uncomfortably too-frequent crises” created the “greatest dangers for misreporting and misdiagnosis.” Often missing the deeper structural issues, Litan argued that the press focused instead on personalities and institutional details.

Joining the discussion, reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Business Week, as well as scholars, critiqued these views, adding insights and comments of their own. What follows are edited versions of the papers presented at the conference, commentary on those papers, the address by Franklin Raines, and the keynote address by Treasury Secretary Rubin.

Download the report (PDF).