August 18, 2008

Tracking the Economic Slowdown

Media Coverage and Views about the Economy

Even if journalists and the public were not entirely in sync about levels of coverage and interest in the story, there does appear to be a correlation between how much coverage the media offered and how pessimistic people were about their economic fortunes. While other factors could have contributed to declining public confidence in the nation’s fiscal health, American’s anxiety about the economy intensified as media coverage increased.

In other words, 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.

As an example, in January this year, 26% of Americans considered the economy to be in excellent or good shape, while 28% considered in poor shape. By March, after news coverage more than doubled from the previous quarter, those numbers had changed markedly for the worse. Only 11% now considered the economy to be in excellent or good shape, while the percentage of Americans who considered the economy to be ailing had doubled to 56%. [1]

What’s perhaps more dramatic is the relationship between public worry over rising oil and gas prices and increases in coverage. In January, 3% of Americans considered energy prices the most important problem facing the country. By July, that number had jumped to 19%, compared with 17% who thought the war in Iraq was the top problem. Americans now also considered it the No. 1 element of the economic crisis. [2]

That jump in concern over gas prices coincided precisely with a jump in coverage of the issue. From the first quarter of 2007 through the first quarter of 2008, gas and oil coverage never even reached a single percent of the coverage. In the second quarter of 2008, it increased more than five fold, and by June was an even bigger story than the U.S. economy generally.

In short, pessimism over the economy can hardly be laid at the feet of journalists since the public seems more highly attuned to economic conditions than the media. But this also makes it a story in which more coverage may have a particularly potent effect.


FOOTNOTES:

1. In the fourth quarter of 2007, coverage of the economy filled less than 4% of the overall newshole. By the next quarter—the first quarter 2008—the economy coverage had risen to 9% of the newshole.
2. At the same time, those who cited energy costs as the most important “economic problem” facing the country, jumped from 11% in Feb. 2008 to 38% in July 2008. That makes energy prices the biggest component of the economic problem according to the survey, much bigger than unemployment and jobs (13%) or housing (10%).