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Doom and gloom earplugs

I've spent the last hour or so in an all-staff Marketplace editorial meeting. The topic for discussion was -- are we striking the proper tone with our coverage of business and the economy?

What prompted the meeting was feedback from some Marketplace listeners and criticism from other people of financial news media in general. It's all doom and gloom. It's depressing. I'd rather bathe in crude oil than listen/watch your show. Things like that.

So we're asking ourselves, should we be doing things differently? Here are some of the responses from the Marketplace staff, and I'm paraphrasing:

  • We're just reporting the news. The news happens to be bad most of the time.
  • Perhaps we have to be vigilant about our tone of voice or language when the markets are down or the unemployment news is awful. Maybe we're adding an extra layer of gloom with our voices and words.
  • Maybe we could use more stories from outside New York and Washington. They tend to dominate the coverage, and yes, those stories are generally depressing.
  • Perhaps we can be more thoughtful about the tone of any given show. So if four negative stories are dominating on one day, do we have to cover all of them? Or should we try to find elements that are lighter/more positive in tone to add balance on days like that?
  • People say they like Marketplace because it tends have a more optimistic feel to it. But listeners don't want us to stop reporting the downer stories because they want the information.

On a daily basis, we do consider our balance of stories and whether we're too heavy, too light, too Wall Street, too Washington, etc, but there are many ways to consider tone.

One way I look at it is -- the "we" stories and the "me" stories. The "we" stories are the big picture Wall Street and Washington elements. It's the "where we are as a country and as an economy" story. The "me" stories are more micro-economy. How are individuals and small businesses coping with the recession? What opportunities are taking shape because of it? Innovation, entrepreneurship and the like.

For example, I have an idea for creating doom and gloom earplugs. You put them in when you listen to or watch financial shows, and you only hear the news that makes you feel good! I tried out a demo pair during AIG week, but I didn't hear anything at all. I may have to go back to the drawing board.

While I wait for the patent, I'd love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, feedback on Marketplace's coverage and tone.

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I listen to all of the marketplace programs on WVGR 104.1 Grand Rapids (Michigan Radio) and I do not mind the "doom and gloom" - a few years ago I was more upset about the upbeat tone of the show - Michigan has been in "doom and gloom" mode for about 6 or 7 years now.

Right now, I'm not minding the tone of the show, both your programs and the folks over at Planet Money (and This American Life) have done a great job of educating me about how we got into this mess.

What I would like to see more discussion of -and not just from your show, but from everyone in the media - is how we're going to prevent this from happening again. In other words, I'd like for your show to start asking difficult questions of the legislature about regulation.

Here is my problem and it is not exclusive to Marketplace, I am tired of verbs like "plummeted" and "crashed" and I never, ever, ever, ever want to hear the term "fell off a cliff" again. It's tough out there and we should be informed but do we have to panic? I also do not want to hear "this indicator is up but it doesn't mean anything". Would you ever say "The dow is down 900 points but don't worry about it?" I doubt it. So please don't discount good news, even if it does not signal a full recovery.
I would like to see this bad news, which is very real and should be taken seriously, with some hopeful stories. To your credit, I have noticed more positive segments lately Even the personal profiles of people who are starting new businesses and doing well or helping others are great. Human beings screw up but we are also very adaptable and resilient and I would like to see that reflected in Marketplace reporting.

Christine, I'm with you on the verbs. We have a cliche wall in our newsroom to remind ourselves about the overuse of certain words and phrases. I actually did a posting about it last month: http://tinyurl.com/d7gat3

And we are working on more of the kind of stories you mention there at the end. On the indicators, I will say, it's a tough call sometimes. Yes, we should bring attention to those numbers, but they also have to be put into the proper perspective. Otherwise, we're doing a disservice.

No no no. Stop over thinking the "tone" of your program. I don't want to be fed contrived or tone balanced information. It's not everyone's job to soothe the masses into calm sheep-like creatures in comas. Please just report the most important stories of the day exactly how you see them. Please, please, please.

I hate it when people complain about too much bad news. If you took their advice and concentrated on the good news, they would wonder why you missed important stories.

I do appreciate Marketplace's coverage. Yes, the stories are mostly negative. But you do such a good job of explaining the news it isn't an issue with me. When I hear reports throughout the day, I look forward to your show to tell me what it means.

Instead of looking to balance the bad news with good news, try to add more utility. Yes the economy is in the crapper but what can we do about it? You do offer advice stories about how to deal with financial issues. But look for more ways to help people improve their finances and businesses.

We don't need earplugs or happy horsepoo sunshine profiles. We just need a bit more content that offers advice on how to succeed.

Carl, thanks for the suggestions. Just curious, do you listen to Marketplace Money at all? That show is specifically geared to personal finance issues and advice, without happy horsepoo sunshine profiles.

Let me be more clear:
I'm not complaining about "too much bad news". I'm complaining about Marketplace's tone. Specifically, the intros and segues between segments have a tone of (1) jaded cynicism about the news announced; (2) a fatigued, eye-rolling attitude (e.g. "It should come as no surprise that..." or alternately, "As we all know...") -- as if the Marketplace staff is tired of the news themselves -- that they find it so repetitive and devoid of novelty that they can't muster enough enthusiasm to finish a sentence which they feel like they've read before. Listening to Marketplace is like listening to Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day when he's hit rock bottom: bored and sneering. Each new "dreary" economic report is heralded as being just like the last one they reported.
For example:
<i><b>Kai Ryssdal:</b> Sometimes on a Friday you really have to scratch your head to remember what the big news of the week was. Granted, that hasn't happened much since Wall Street started its free fall. And this week is no different...</i> (Feb. 13)

<b>Ryssdal:</b> <i>Not that we really need it, but refresh our memories as to how bad the housing market is. Is it worse than it was 18 months ago? About the same? <i>(Feb. 13)

What amplifies the mood of "doom and gloom" is the Marketplace writing staff's rhetorical strategies for enjoining us into their misery. Sure, they try to keep their copy engaging by appealing to the listener at every turn with phrases like:
-<i>"We all are..."</i>
-<i>"As we all know..."</i>
-<i>"You must be..."</i>
-<i>"We shouldn't be surprised..."</i> (e.g. <b>Ryssdal:</b> <i>"You probably were not surprised by what happened yesterday..."</i>, or this prefatory formula to introduce a quote, <i>"[EXPERT] says you shouldn't be surprised..."</i>, which seems among one of Marketplace's favorite syntactic templates.)
It's not hard to find more examples.

I find these constant attempts at engaging me, the listener, irritating and presumptuous. Please, please stop. More than any show I know, Marketplace actively cultivates a "We're All In The Same Boat Together" ethos. And that's a worthy sentiment for a show about people's economic realities. But the truth is, I don't want to be in your boat, Marketplace. And your news boat is not everybody else's boat. We do not all share the same expectations about the news; we are not all tired of it, bored with it, or emotionally drained by it, as your broadcasts so often profess. Don't be so cavalier about speaking for how I and everybody else feels or thinks.

What Marketplace should understand and respond to when they hear listeners complaining about "too bad news" is this:
Our complaint is not so much with your handling of the news itself... It's your rhetorical eye-rolling at the news (presumably in effort to engage us listeners), and in particular, your use of snark and lament as an involvement strategy, that really gets under our skin and amplifies the "doom and gloom" mood of your broadcasts. You can easily change your tone problem, Marketplace, without compromising your news coverage. Just quit rolling your eyes and giving me knowing looks.

John, your critique deserves attention. I know when I was hosting every day, it would get to me sometimes. I would feel like I didn't want to tell people the same thing I had to tell them yesterday and the day before that.

We are people and the economy affects us too.
I think part of the appeal of our show is that we are allowed to be human on the air, unlike some of the more robotic news organizations. With that, there's a danger of straying too far into the "lament" feeling you're describing. It's certainly something for us to keep in mind.

I think Marketplace's reports aren't over the top. There are some that to me, fall on either side.

Here, in the Midwest, many of my relatives and friends have either been laid off, or working on 32 hour work weeks, when they were used to overtime.

Cost of living is continuing to go up, taxes here are still going up.

It's a bleak situation. Further, it would seem all indicators are pointing to a general reduction in salary for the working class with a spike in inflation in the not to distant future, making us all much more "poor."

Washington's puppet strings are more obvious than ever, and at the controls are big business. While I don't think protectionism is an answer, we do have to face the reality that it is occurring or already exists in most of the other countries we do business with.

We seem to keep selling American businesses to other countries and moving production facilities to other countries, leaving much less capital in our own hands.

Now, it may be that we will be further burdened financially with environmental regulations that will cost us still more.

Credit card companies and other financial entities are charging interest rates and fees that should be and used to be, criminal. With the recent decline in consumer protections, its a dark situation. Now, because of the "global market" we find ourselves unable to alter much without offending overseas investors.

Truly, we are losing control of our country one dollar at a time. Worse, it's being encouraged as the way of the future, while many other countries are securing their own interests.

If anything, I find many of your articles on the bright side.

Actually, that's literally what I use when I listen to Marketplace: earplugs. I recommend "Quiet Please" Foam Ear Plugs. When the host starts using ugly language to intro a segment, for example, or when I hear Ky Risdahl's voice gurgling over in orgiastic glee at how bad the news he's breaking is, I put in the foam earplugs. I remove them about 5 minutes later, or when it sounds like the voices have changed enough that it might be another segment. And when it's Sean Cole, the earplugs DEFINITELY come out.

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