When an economic crisis is not a crisis


The serious financial problems plaguing economies around the world necessitate an examination of the role of mass media and communication. One of the most noticeable points of political sensitivity concerns the use of the word crisis. Great care and consideration is taken by financial and political groups to decide what they say and how they should say it. Circumstances, though, are dire. Mass media and journalists must cover the situation critically. But a basic question should be asked in order imageto make sense of strategies and events. Why does such a word, as crisis, hold such power in the economic and political sphere?

Examining the issue of perception and the role it plays in society should cast a light on this subject. A fundamental theoretical principle of perception is that people act according to what they perceive to be reality. This perception may or may not correspond to what is actually happening. A uniform message is required in order to ‘impose’ the desired perception. That is why it is important for those seeking to have a certain message accepted in the information sphere to be able to either manipulate or control means of communication, whether by formulation and framing of a particular issue or manipulation of journalists themselves. 

In this piece, the focus is on the global economic crisis that is affecting the world. Economic crises are every bit as volatile and destructive as other crises, be they natural or otherwise. One of the reasons for this is a convergence of perception and fear. Fear is the product of at least two sets of circumstances:

  • 1) A realistic possibility of a negative event happening
  • 2) that there is a good chance that it will affect individuals on a personal level.

This can be seen in the stock market, for instance, when investors will sell their stocks en masse in the anticipation that the price is about to fall. Such a move can actually bring about the feared event. This makes the destructive potential of rumour and hearsay potentially very great. This example assuming there is some perceived credibility of the source and message. 

The fortunes and futures of political and economic interests lie in the acceptance of a certain picture of reality, an assumed future. To manage an enterprise or govern a country effectively there must be legitimacy of the organisation (the company or political party) and the individual (the CEO or the Prime Minister/President). Without such, the process is made far more difficult. So, there is an assumed need by companies and parties to control or at least frame the message. This can be seen in the rapidly expanding PR components in politics and business. A media watch group, Spin Watch, warned of the ‘dangerous’ relationship developing between the news media and politics in the United Kingdom in 2006. Just what level of co-operation or conflict exists between mass media and political and economic interests is debatable. The important matter is why this co-operation should occur in the first place.

In politics, the matter of an economic recession or depression has serious ramifications for legitimacy and the ability to continue to govern effectively. There is a close link forged between business and politics, detectable in the amount of imagepolitical importance attached to economic issues. Despite this relationship, though, there is generally a tendency to avoid open and informed debates on issues such as economic crisis. Too much political capital is risked in such proceedings. Instead there is an attempt to either steer conversation away from the issue, thus making what is not said in the mass media every bit as important (if not more) or to paint a ‘rosy’ (and selected) picture of reality. These strategies have already surfaced. Journalists are, for instance, discouraged from talk of economic crisis in Russia. A tactic employed by a large bank operating in the Baltic Sea Region, a strategy of which I have personal knowledge, issued a memo to their staff saying that the word ‘crisis’ is not to be used when describing the current economic situation. Bank staff is to use the word ‘turbulence’ instead. 

Avoiding words that have negative connotations is hardly a new phenomenon. This political ploy has existed for some time around the world. At times these tactics have been labelled as problematic at best, and perhaps even dangerous. One of the obvious factors that stem from the use of such tactics is that business and political leaders do not trust

  • a) the mass media
  • b) the public.

There is a belief that mass media will create some form of hysteria and the public will panic. But ignoring or diverting attention from a crisis will not make it go away. In fact, it is likely to worsen and deepen. There is likely a point in the future at which time journalists and the public will discover more deception related to the current crisis. This would likely to result in a significant loss of confidence in the political and business leadership.

Journalists and the mass media play a critical role during times of economic crisis. In the long term it is very difficult to impossible to cover up such events. A precondition for diversion of attention is that these events remain remote from peoples’ lives. It is the mass media that can bring these remote events to the publics’ attention. Without attention focused on the real crisis, though, society is buffered from the affects of an economic crisis. They are left very much exposed and vulnerable. People need reliable information with which to form informed opinions and judgements. It is the role of journalists and to foster positive and informed debate and ready society for such crises.

Flickr photos from users MotherPie and chrisheuer.