I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand

Durham Tees Valley: flights 56 per cent off

There’s good news and there’s bad news, but there’s more good news. I’m not just trying to make you feel better, there really is. I divided the number of stories mentioning “good news” by those mentioning “bad news”, and there’s a steady increase in good news stories in the last 15 months:

We certainly have pluck. On this sophisticated measure, levels of non-specific hope are even higher than at the height of the boom:

It’s also worth pointing out that the long-term good news ratio in the newspapers is consistently above where it was 20 years ago. And in those days newspapers were in black and white and you had to pay to read about misery rather than just ignoring it on the internet. Terrible days. Still, they didn’t have Richard Littejohn then, so not everything’s changed for the better.

The press might be at a historical hope high because of the dead cat bounce theory (even a dead cat will bounce if it falls far enough. Try it). In this case there is so much real-life bad news that papers have just looked harder for something chipper to write about.

Exhibit A: “Bosses of the region’s two airports say they are seeing the green shoots of recovery,” said a hope-filled article in the Newcastle Journal this week, which, as far as I could see, contained almost no evidence of any green shoots at all. The article is about how the managers of local airports were hoping things would improve after average passenger numbers in the UK fell 7.4 per cent last year. At Newcastle Airport the drop was 9 per cent, and Durham Tees Valley 56 per cent. If you exclude the better-performing airports, the article points out, Newcastle declined less than the average.

Of course, if you exclude enough of the better-performing airports, even Durham Tees performed better than the average. But if you’re the boss you have to tell the local press that stuff is going to get better, honest. It’s your job. I note that it is a journalist’s job to point out when you’re talking crap (a 56 per cent decline in business is a clue in this case). But, sometimes, we all need a hug.

So it is with the “green shoots” mentioned above, now used not as economic analysis, but as a signal of faint and desperate hope that we won’t have to cook our pets for dinner or traffic the kids yet. Business Minister Baroness Vadera in January 2009 and Solicitor General Vera Baird in March 2009 both claimed to have spotted these shoots. They must have a big magnifying glass in the UK Treasury, because GDP fell 2.64 per cent in the quarter beginning in January 2009 , and 0.63 per cent the next quarter.

If you want an example of how meaningless and transient news-based optimism can be, there was a gigantic peak in UK green shoots stories last summer – mostly, in the ones I read, estate agents saying they were a bit busier:

But note how quick they died away. Hope is a powerful drug – but it wears off quickly. Dead cats bounce; just not very high.

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2 Responses to “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”

  1. 1 Clare Lynch March 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    You can’t really blame journos for their excessive Pollyanna-ism when they get so much stick for “talking the economy down” (it’s quite cute that even they themselves seem to believe they have the power to do so).

    Funny, though, how nobody ever gets criticised for “talking the economy up”. Indeed, a series of property-ramping articles seems to be an essential part of every journo’s portfolio (all along the lines of “Yippee, another year of hyperinflation in a basic necessity!”)

    • 2 Tim Phillips March 19, 2010 at 4:28 pm

      I agree – but I think the long-term trend is also a desire to have more *real people* instead of analysis, and to write down what they say.

      Now that journalism is more passive and desk-bound, journalists are naturally going to speak mostly to the type of *real people* who have a positive story to tell – because they’re the people who are pushed at us. In the 1990s the good news/bad news ratio, basic though the measure is, was never above 2-to-1. Now the economy’s in the toilet, it hasn’t stopped raining since last April, someone put Jedward on TV – and the ratio is still above 3-to-1.

      Is the world that much better than it was, or do we just want journalism that makes it seem that way?

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