Planet Money host reflects on journalism

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

Almost all human behavior can be explained through economics, according to Adam Davidson.

Davidson is co-founder and co-host of “Planet Money,” a radio program produced by National Public Radio and This American Life. On Monday afternoon, he spoke to approximately 25 members of the Yale community about his career as a journalist and his transition to economic reporting. In his talk, Davidson emphasized the importance and challenges of helping the general public understand economic issues.

Davidson recalled arriving in Baghdad, Iraq as a war correspondent in 2003. Though he had previously studied religion, he said he was surprised to find that knowledge of economics was more helpful in deciphering the Sunni-Shiite conflict.

“Economics proved a much more powerful explanatory tool than the ones I arrived with,” he said.

For example, Davidson explained that his interactions with a Sunni businessman showed that much of the conflict boiled down to disputes over access to resources. A young man from Jordan once told him that he would become a suicide bomber “depending on the job market,” Davidson recalled.

When he returned to the United States ready to begin a career in journalism centered on economics, Davidson said he found that covering the financial crisis was actually more difficult than covering the war. While the constant evolution, challenge and non-stop pace of economic journalism “felt like covering a war” Davidson said the fundamental tenets of the conflict in the Middle East had been easier to grasp and explain than even the most basic financial concepts, such as stocks and bonds.

“Every day, some new term would appear at 3 a.m., and by 6 a.m., I’d have to explain it to millions,” he said. “It was a thrilling but also very frustrating time.”

Davidson said he and Alex Blumberg began “Planet Money” in 2008 because they wanted to report on complex economic affairs in a useful, dynamic and easy-to-understand way.

Since journalism is based on the “core skill of storytelling,” Davidson said the ultimate goals of the radio show were to tell a compelling story and report news.

“‘Planet Money,’ at its best, is a great person with a compelling story able to show a larger lesson about the economy,” he said.

Once again connecting his experience as an economic reporter to his previous job as a Middle East correspondent, Davidson compared the public’s understanding of the 2008–’09 financial crisis with its understanding of the events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001. Immediately following the dawn of each event, he said, “a moment of incredible openness” arose in the minds of Americans but was soon followed by polarized, binary and simplistic viewpoints about the world crisis.

Davidson concluded his talk by saying that public misconceptions about the economy can be attributed to the fissure between economists and laypeople.

“While my listeners seem to ask naïve but potent questions, the academics are asking interesting questions that do not meet the powerful need of the public to understand,” he said.

Three students interviewed said they found Davidson’s stories of his journalistic experiences more compelling than his views on the economy.

“It was a little surreal putting a body to the voice I’ve been listening to for so long,” said Abigail Schneider ’17, who listens to “Planet Money” regularly. Schneider added that she found Davidson’s explanations of how to build a story — either from a specific narrative up or from a general theory down — particularly compelling.

“Planet Money” produces a semiweekly podcast and runs stories for several NPR shows.

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