The media, the economy and you
Media 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.