Economists and the Media

Richard Tol has raised some interesting issues about the interaction between economists and the media. One point he makes is how much of the supposed expert commentary in the media is from people who have limited expertise. That’s not too controversial and I think is true of media throughout the world.

As I read it, however, Richard is also making another point related specifically to academics. This point is that only those who are experts in a particular area, as signified by their contributions to academic publications, should discuss this area with the media.

On balance, I don’t see much merit in this argument.

I’d make the following points:

First, while it is true that an economist with more frontier research contributions is (other things being equal) more likely to be smart and on top of their subject area, it is also true that the majority of economic policy issues that are discussed in the media do not relate these frontier debates.

For example, based on my publications in leading journals, I could bore for Ireland on the merits of the New Keynesian Phillips curve or the link between consumption spending and asset prices. However, the media aren’t too interested. Instead, they often ask me to discuss issues that a very good command of undergraduate or master’s level economics would allow a person to explain. In most cases, it does not take a frontier-economics level of expertise to answer the questions about bank balance sheets or fiscal policy that the media are often interested in.

This point probably holds particularly well for my specialised research area of macroeconomics but I think it holds pretty broadly across various subfields. For example, I think it’s now pretty well known that Richard Tol has published a large number of academic papers in the area of environmental economics. However, when economists, including Richard, appear in the Irish media to discuss environmental policy issues, in the vast majority of cases they are making points about taxes to curb externalities or pricing to match costs of services with costs of provision – points that I recall from second year undergraduate microeconomics.

To summarise, a smart economist without any frontier research publications in a particular area is perfectly capable of making useful points about a whole range of issues.

Second, when arguing that an academic should decline invitations to discuss anything other than issues they have published papers on, it’s worth keeping in mind the alternative the public will get to hear if the academic says no. Whatever Richard thinks about Irish academics, there is a large number of financial journalists and stockbrocker economists whose job is to say yes when asked to appear on these shows (in the case of the latter, they often appear to promote a particular interest group’s point of view).

In many cases, an academic that agrees to discuss an issue on which they have not published a paper is doing so because they have an opinion on the issue based on their expertise and because they are fairly sure that the alternative is that the public get to hear something from a journalist with very little background at all in economics or someone promoting a vested interest.

Third, Richard reckons that “The typical listener to the radio or watcher of the TV assumes that because someone is a professor and speaking on the topic, (s)he must be an expert.” Well, maybe that’s true in Holland but it sure isn’t true here. If you think everyone in Ireland thinks I’m an expert on issues I prognosticate on, I recommend reading the comments on this blog. Appearing with the title “Professor” is nice but if you can’t make cogent logical arguments, then the public won’t necessarily buy what you are saying.

Finally, I’d note that there is very little financial compensation for appearing on Irish TV and radio shows (fees are somewhere between very low, e.g. €50, and zero) and, from conversations with colleagues, I believe the majority of reasonably well known economists say no most of the time when asked to appear on these shows. I believe that those Irish academics who appear on TV and radio to discuss economic policy issues are largely doing so because they believe they have a useful contribution to make and that their state-paid salary places an obligation on them to make a useful contribution to debates about public policy.