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UNL News Blog

Of forecasts and frames

Once in a while in the midst of a grindingly slow summer, it’s nice to go after some low-hanging fruit. To wit: The latest Business In Nebraska report by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Council.

The report, which is released through UNL’s Bureau of Business Research, is done semi-annually and provides both short and long-term economic forecasting on a U.S. macroeconomic and statewide microeconomic scale. Usually the economic predictions go no further than two years out, although this one reached all the way until the end of 2012. If you’re interested, see the current report here.

Naturally, this week’s economic forecast pulled down extensive local and regional coverage as reporters zoomed in on the Council’s slight ratchet-back of its January job-growth projections. Also not surprisingly, the Council’s forecast also got an excellent ride around the national wires, landing in major outlets such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek, CNBC.com, Forbes.com and dozens of daily newspapers around the country.

This happened, in large part, because the report was excellently timed. National discussion about the economy, after slowing down for some time in spring and summer to obsess about oil spills and the World Cup, has begun to pick up again. This is in part because of politics, but also because U.S. economic growth isn’t roaring along at the breakneck pace to fit some analysts’ narrative.

In the diametrically framed world of the national media, in which gray area and nuance is hard to locate, the fact that the recovery isn’t happening at light speed clearly means the United States is in for a double-dip recession, right? So, reporters and editors around the nation are looking for any evidence of that to further that particular story frame. This latest UNL report provides some good talking points within that frame.

UNL economics professor Eric Thompson, who heads the BBR and who is certainly no stranger to working with the media, emphasized in this latest report that the U.S. and Nebraska economies are both continuing to grow and move in the right direction, despite the persistence of difficult headwinds. And, while there are reasons for optimism on the economic front, he and the Council believe it would not appropriate to be absolutely bursting with optimism right now.

In other words, Thompson wanted to get past the “boom or bust” mentality that tends to permeate the national discussion when it comes to the economy. We kept this in mind when framing Tuesday’s news release, which eventually went out under the headline of “Forecasters: Nebraska economy still on pace for growth.”

In the end, we got decent, but mixed, results on that front. Most writers focused on one figure from the report — that overall job growth is projected to be 0.3 percent by the end of 2010, instead of the 0.9 percent growth projected in January. Nothing inaccurate about reporting that, but it wasn’t exactly the way we framed the story.

Of course, we’re not stomping and screaming about getting good, national exposure on our Bureau for Business Research. Bottom line, this is a win for UNL. It also is one of those clear and necessary reminders that, once the story’s out our door and delivered to our friends in the media, there really is no way to predict how reporters might treat the information, and what might result from their treatment of it. We might have a good initial idea of how things will be framed, but in the end, we have no real control over that.

Kind of like forecasting the economy, eh?

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