What we don’t know can’t hurt us. If ever there was an aphorism that irks journalists and others who are temperamentally driven to know as much as possible, that’s it. We prefer Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ observation that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” So it is with considerable angst that on one of the most crucial government undertakings of these fragile times—the “stress tests” that regulators performed on the nation’s banks—I find myself sympathizing with the camp that’s pushing for less information, not more.
The question is how many details the government should reveal about the results of the tests, which are aimed at determining if the banks will be able to ride out a prolonged recession. The ones deemed especially vulnerable will have to raise more capital and possibly be given additional billions in bailout money. But the concern is that if the public knows too much about how shaky some banks truly are, investors and customers will flee, and the ensuing bank failures could put the entire financial system under unbearable strain. A similar dynamic is playing out in the response to the swine flu outbreak. Of course we need to be informed about the disease and the precautions we should be taking. But constant coverage of every new case that turns up anywhere in the world makes it seem, wrongly, that there’s already a full-blown pandemic. On both issues, government and media must balance a responsibility to inform the public with a sensitivity to the consequences of inducing panic. It cuts against my journalistic grain to say this, but sometimes there is such a thing as too much information.