The media, the economy and you

August 18, 2008

tv-reporter.jpgMedia coverage of economic troubles in the past 18 months has shifted repeatedly in the last year from a narrative about mortgages to one about recession, a banking crisis and now largely gas prices, according to a new report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.

All this is good to know, but the bigger question is why it has progressed the way it has. Fortunately for us, PEJ digs right into it.(And before the meat, here’s the methodology: The PEJ study is based on an analysis of more than 5,000 economic stories from January 1, 2007, through June 30, 2008, drawn from 1,950 hours of programming on the three major cable news cable channels, 390 on network morning and evening TV, 910 on radio, and 468 days’ editions of 21 different newspapers, and the five leading news websites, some 48 different news outlets in all.)Here’s an excerpt:

[The] connection between media coverage and economic events has often been uneven. Sometimes, coverage has lagged months behind economic activity, when the storyline was dependent on government data. Other times, coverage has tracked events erratically, as with housing and inflation. … But when the story is easier to tell, as in the case of gas prices, coverage has been closely tied to what is actually occurring in the marketplace.

The economy has been the No. 2 story so far in 2008 in the U.S. media, moving ahead of the Iraq war but behind the presidential campaign. (Economy takes 8 percent of the space available for news; Iraq takes 3 percent; The campaign takes 37 percent) Often the press coverage has lagged behind economic events, sometimes by months. … The only change in the economy that reliably predicts more press coverage in the last year has been rising gas prices.While public attention to economic news does not always translate into more coverage, more coverage of the economy can be correlated to deepening public worries.

We’re not only looking for the easy stories, we’re also constantly behind, the study finds:

One gets a sense of a news industry curious about what is occurring in the economy but with limited handles to grab on to the story. The government data are one handle, though often months behind. Congressional testimony and statements by government officials in press conferences are another. The reaction of the private sector, through the stock market, quarterly earnings reports and the financial health of companies is a third. Yet all of these may tend to leave the media narrative lagging months behind what is going on in people’s lives.

When it comes to gasoline, however, we are there with bells on:

Not only are gas prices an easy story to spot, they also represent an easy story for the media to tell and perhaps also for the public to understand. There are no confusing sets of conflicting data or complex economic jargon to parse, no indices made up of multiple elements to explain.

One last intriguing question: do our nervous-Nelly natterings make people feel worse about the economy? The study concludes:

It is neither a clear case of media reflecting nor manufacturing public worry, but there are evident correlations between increased coverage and growing public anxiety. … even if the media did not manufacture that public concern, more coverage may have reinforced those worries and confirmed for people that their fears are justified.

Conclusion: It’s OK; blame the media. :)

(Photo: Reuters)

2 comments

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I thought the news media’s job was supposed to inform the public? Well, they are doing a really horrible job. As the markets have collapsed the media has begun to panic and not educate the public about what the politicians in Washington are doing. No one understands how this mess affects the average American. Now the media has turned to what Obama and McCain have up their sleeves to get us out of all these problems.
I was talking to someone who works at an investment company and he agreed that the media has been too alarmist and has not done enough to explain how we got to where we are today. I mean, we have seen many white-collar workers on Wall Street out of jobs, whole companies fail and everyone else is scared to death.
The media has been worried about how much McCain’s presence at the White House meetings affected the debate about the bailout bill. I guess that’s newsworthy. But if people don’t understand what happened to cause this problem it could happen again. Instead of screaming about how many points the Dow dropped today, explain what’s causing all the turmoil.
I would bet that most people don’t understand enough about the bailout to determine whether it is a good plan or not. I certainly don’t. That needs to be explored. The politicians can’t be trusted to explain it to us. Do you really want someone who is angling to get re-elected and is probably not an economist explaining this plan to you? No, you don’t.
I don’t think the media is too worried about the terrible economy at the moment. They’ve got something even better to dissect: A VP debate between the old guy from Delaware and the airhead from Alaska.

Posted by Stephen | Report as abusive

Tx Stephen – Will share this with colleagues here.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive