Did This American Life affect the media conversation about the mortgage crisis?

mortgage closerBy the time articles about the mortgage crisis began hitting the front pages of major newspapers, the story was already old. Reporters were left playing catch-up to the current meltdown and in the process even seasoned news junkies were left confused. With the inverted pyramid style of storytelling, most journalists had a difficult time summarizing a situation that had been years in the making. News consumers were left simply with a series of buzz words — subprime mortgage, adjustable rate mortgages, housing bubble — that painted an incredibly broad picture that the economy wasn’t doing so well.

But then Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life stepped in and explained it all. In a radio documentary titled “The Giant Pool of Money,” producer Alex Blumberg and NPR’s economics correspondent Adam Davidson teamed up to create what is perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of the meltdown to date.

The two went back and created a meticulous narrative of the events leading up to the burst, interviewing dozens of sources — consumers, bankers, investors, defaulters — to allow listeners to understand the Kafkaesque logic and domino effect and how it all tied back to this “giant pool of money.” When either Blumberg or Davidson would get too ahead of himself, the other would playfully ring him back in. No stone was left unturned.

After listening to the episode, many people claimed that they had a newfound understanding of what had gone wrong. They could piece together the incredibly complex triggers of the crisis and finally comprehend the news stories they were reading and hearing. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen was one of these people

In an article published at Media Shift’s Idea Lab, Rosen said that before listening to that episode he hadn’t been a “customer” for mortgage crisis stories, preferring to skip over them rather than consuming what he didn’t understand. After hearing it, he wrote, he had a “civic mastery” that turned him into an avid consumer of such stories.

I spoke to Rosen in a phone interview today, and he talked about how reporters should take this example to generate a new kind of storytelling — what he called “explainy journalism.”

“In many instances the stories themselves do not provide the key necessary to decode them,” he said. “You cannot find in the story itself the key you need to read it. And it’s usually the people writing the story who have no idea that the key is lacking, because they already have the information necessary to decode it.”

I asked Rosen how journalists could fix this problem, but he said he hadn’t yet figured out how to implement his theory. For now, he simply recognizes that the problem exists.

This American Life
‘s Alex Blumberg sees this lack of context in news stories as well. I interviewed the producer earlier today, and he explained that his entire reason for creating the episode grew out of his frustration with how the media covered complicated stories.

“I feel like my constant problem with the daily news media is that either you’re always entering the story in the middle or often at the end,” he said. “And they don’t do a very good job of talking about the beginning and what got us to this point where it became news.”

The idea for the episode began culminating for him years before the bubble burst, when he read a presentation by an economist arguing that debt was rising without the necessary correlation of rising income. Eventually, he and NPR’s Adam Davidson began exchanging emails about the possibility of teaming up on a housing crisis story. Early this year the two pitched the episode to their bosses.

Blumberg said that the episode is the show’s most popular to date, beating out its nearest competitor by over 50,000 downloads. And the response has been overwhelming.

“We got more listener feedback for that show than just about any show we’ve put out,” he said. ” … It was overwhelmingly positive. People were saying things like, ‘I didn’t really understand this. It was in the news all the time but I didn’t know what they were talking about until I heard that episode.’ It was very gratifying because that’s exactly what my intent was. Because that was me; I didn’t understand it either. Fortunately I have a job where I get paid to go figure things out and report back. And that’s really what my goal was.”

this american life ira glassI asked Blumberg whether he had seen any evidence that his story had not only affected the consumers of mortgage crisis news but also the reporters that wrote it. He responded that it was extremely difficult to tell, but he had lunch recently with a New York Times business reporter who said that many Times journalists had listened to and enjoyed the episode. He has also noticed some recent articles that seemed to give a slight nod to wording from “The Giant Pool of Money.”

“I do think that I’ve noticed sort of like phrases appearing in newspapers that seemed like maybe they were influenced by the show,” he said. “But I can’t tell for sure.”

Rosen had his own anecdote that indicated at least one instance of influence. While working on his Idea Lab piece he Twittered his readers, asking how the This American Life episode had affected them.

“There’s a young reporter that follows my feed on Twitter,” he said. “She writes for a newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana. The next day after I Twittered about the This American Life episode, she had an assignment to do a localized version of the story about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and whether local bankers were affected. It was very much a local version of that story. She found she was way more prepared for that assignment because she had gone through the transcript of this show.”

So in this instance, he said, a news consumer had been able to take a story and build upon it, using the knowledge she gathered to inform her own reporting.

“It’s not only necessary background for the future readers of news, but also the future writers. It’s an enabling narrative for both the users and the producers.”