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DEBT: Executive Summary

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More than 600,000 homes are currently in foreclosure; both houses of Congress and the president have proposed different bailout plans for the mortgage “crisis;” and Americans are drowning in $2.4 trillion worth of red ink.

     But the problems of consumer debt are made worse because the liberal media ignore personal responsibility and instead use the issue to beat up on businesses that lend money to people who want to borrow.

    Two divisions of the Media Research Center analyzed evening news reporting on debt from Nov. 28, 2006, (shopping’s Black Friday) through Aug. 31, 2007. The Business & Media Institute and Culture and Media Institute examined 156 stories and found that ABC, CBS and NBC overwhelmingly blamed business for “luring” consumers to make bad decisions. At the same time, the three networks ignored personal responsibility and portrayed borrowers as helpless victims who had no hand in their own financial failures. These are some of the findings:

Irresponsible Borrowers off the Hook: Sixty-two percent of the stories on the three networks ignored the consumer’s responsibility for debt. - Just as many portrayed borrowers as victims, such as the North Carolina family “living off peanut butter and jelly” just to make the mortgage payment.

Business Gets a Black Eye: Lenders and related companies were blamed for borrowers’ debt troubles six times as often as borrowers. ABC and NBC even blamed the National Football League for retired players’ financial woes.    

A Penny Saved or Spent: While network reporters occasionally complained about Americans’ negative savings rate, the ideas of savings and thrift were virtually ignored throughout the nine-month period. Only 14 percent of debt-related stories mentioned a savings or thrift theme.    

Scary Words about the Economy: Exaggerated descriptions were often used to describe the economy. The terms “economic tsunami,” “chaos,” “crisis” and “meltdown” painted a bleak scenario that could undermine consumer confidence. Networks included doom-and-gloom remarks from ordinary people and experts 88 times, and the term “recession” was mentioned 10 times.   

NBC the Worst: “Nightly News” blamed business nine times as often as borrowers (19 to 2), and tied with “World News with Charles Gibson” in ignoring the issue of personal responsibility. Both networks omitted it in 66 percent of the stories but NBC outdid itself with its poor coverage.    

CBS the Best: CBS was the network most likely to address or promote personal responsibility and also had eight stories promoting savings. The “Evening News” also portrayed fewer people as victims than the other networks.   

To improve coverage, BMI and CMI recommend:

Include business perspective: The media should include the business side more often by interviewing lenders, brokers, bankers, etc. This would help balance reports and educate viewers about how businesses assess risk and make other important decisions. When businessmen are unavailable or unwilling to talk, reporters should interview industry associations and think tanks to ensure a balanced report.  

Personal responsibility is a vital component of the debt story: No one forces anyone to take out a loan or get a credit card. The inclusion of personal responsibility in stories related to debt and finances is important because it tells a more comprehensive and honest story. Journalists who use profile pieces to humanize their stories should include the personal responsibility angle.    

Borrowers aren’t automatically victims: Journalists shouldn’t simply take the side of borrowers and depict them as victims. The media need to remember that every financial agreement includes at least two parties taking risks and desiring the same outcome – to pay off the loan. Don’t save all the hard questions for businesspeople. It is reasonable to ask borrowers tough questions about the assumptions and financial decisions they made.    

Savings and thrift are important stories, too: One of the most responsible things any American can do is to save money for a rainy day. Rather than reporting doom and gloom on issues related to finance, the networks can report on how Americans are saving and securing their own financial futures.  

Take a cue from the morning shows: Networks utilize financial consultants and experts who give good financial advice to viewers of their morning shows. Evening newscasts would be well served by employing these same experts in their coverage of finance.