In My Opinion: Lauren Pennycook: Journalists and their economic literary

THE economic recovery has been top of the public agenda since the financial crisis in 2008.

But while arguments about the cause of the economic crash have varied from blaming our bullish banks to the Government’s grip on fiscal policies, the same players have been prominent in public debates about our economy for the last five years.

Expert economists, academics and policymakers have promoted the viewpoints of their banks, universities and Governments, which have informed public opinion about the recession and how we progress towards recovery. This debate has been framed as specialist and elite, and as a result, some of the voices which feature in similar levels of public debate on other topics have been notable only by their absence.

With a 100-year history of supporting democracy, transparency and accountability, the Carnegie UK Trust is concerned that a lack of knowledge and expertise on economics has left perspectives on the topic under-represented in public debates.

To explore this further, the Trust commissioned a series of interviews designed to find out the current level of economic literacy held by two groups key to the public debate – UK-based journalists and civil society leaders – and training available to these groups to further their understanding of economics and its impact on all areas of public life.

Interviewees with a background in the journalism industry acknowledged that the majority of UK journalists are not trained in economics or any other financial skill, instead becoming experts in their field by specialising for a number of years on local and regional titles before progressing to the national level.

But the role of journalists is changing.

Greater demands are now placed on the depth of their understanding and analytical skills in order to report on the ‘big data’ that is now available in the public domain. However, the even greater demands on the industry’s finances and resources mean that there are limited opportunities for journalists to take part in professional development courses which may assist with their understanding of the basics of macroeconomics.

The research into economic literacy levels among civil society leaders found that knowledge varies in this highly diverse sector, and that the need to understand economics is not immediately relevant or of value to all.

However, for the leaders that require some level of economic literacy, their understanding of macroeconomics needs to improve in order for them to be fully effective in policy circles. The danger of low level of economic literacy within civil society is that organisations can become involved in supporting popular political protests and sloganeering, which are neither effective nor sustainable avenues into the policymaking process. However, the priority of, and subsequent demand for, economic literacy training in a sector which is also under financial pressure was questioned.

In mapping the provision of macroeconomics training across the UK and Ireland, the research found that while training is available through public and private channels, it is neither targeted to journalists or civil society leaders, nor consistently available throughout the UK and Ireland.

General training courses are available through adult education centres, university short courses, online or distant learning, adult summer schools, public lectures and in-house corporate training. But provision is limited in its reach and scope, and is overwhelmingly based in London.

Discussions about additional economic literacy training must take into account the fact that both sectors would require bespoke courses to improve their economic literacy.

The training provider would need to consult with the groups about their knowledge gaps on economics, what they would require from the training, and crucially, if funding was available within each sector to deliver this.

If bespoke and affordable economic literacy training was made available to both groups, journalists and civil society leaders may feel more confident to speak openly on the impact of macroeconomics on our everyday lives, and the quality of our public debate would be much improved.

Lauren Pennycook is a policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust. Click here for the Trust’s briefing on economic literacy training undertaken by UK-based journalists and here for its briefing for economic literacy training undertaken by civil society leaders.