“Economics in the Public Sphere”

The newsroom as a knowledge site

The “Economics in the Public Sphere” project (ECONPUBLIC) was a historical and sociological study of the communication of economic knowledge funded by the European Research Council’s Starting Grants Scheme under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 283754 and based at University College London and at the University of Cambridge from 2012 to 2016.

A team of researchers studied the practices and cultures of economic journalism since 1945 in five nations, USA, UK, France, Argentina, and Brazil. The project studied newsrooms as sites for the production of economic knowledge, and in its writings integrated insights from science studies, communication studies, economic sociology and the history of political economy.

The project completed a comprehensive survey of public representations of economic “expertise” in twentieth century newsprint. It argued that the deepening influence of management by numbers in private and public bureaucracies triggered a rise in visibility of economists in mass media. The project has shone a light on jurisdictional battles within newsrooms, examining controversies over who is expert and on what grounds. Journalists are acutely aware of the low epistemic status of their profession, the project showed that they respond by building up reputations, amassing personal connections and achievements, rather than shoring up credibility through attempts at codifying their practices. To assert the value of their work economic journalists have, at different times, presented themselves as market makers, as opinion makers, as explainers, or as storytellers. The project described media organizations as internally under-determined, with formal organizational authority of editors and desks trespassed in the daily assemblage of news, and outwardly over-determined and constrained by the demands of the niche publications occupy in the media sphere. As a result of these institutional structures, the genres and idioms of economic journalism have emerged from the joint efforts of a variety of professionals, editors, journalists, researchers, designers, among many others, confounding simple attributions of invention, authorship, ownership, and influence. The project tracked in the postwar period deliberate emulation across national borders of genres, idioms and formats of economic journalism. These movements are best explained by the spread of managerial and corporate cultures, rather than by recording changes to the national political economy, to media regulation, or to the sociology of professional journalism.

In sum, the project set out an original perspective on how knowledge of the economy is made public. It described an iterative process engaging journalists, academics and laypersons, and the institutions that hold these partnerships together. These findings are of crucial significance to develop our understanding of public support for economic actions and policies and our appreciation of the place of economic ideas in popular culture.