October 5, 2009

Covering the Great Recession

How the Media Have Depicted the Economic Crisis During Obama’s Presidency

The gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression has been covered in the media largely from the top down, told primarily from the perspective of the Obama Administration and big business, and reflected the voices and ideas of people in institutions more than those of everyday Americans, according to a new study by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Citizens may be the primary victims of the downturn, but they have not been not the primary actors in the media depiction of it.

A PEJ content analysis of media coverage of the economy during the first half of 2009 also found that the mainstream press focused on a relatively small number of major story lines, mostly generating from two cities, the country’s political and financial capitals.

A companion analysis of a broader  array of media using new “meme tracker” technology developed at Cornell University finds that phrases and ideas that reverberated most in the coverage came early on, mostly from government, particularly from the president and the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and that few Republicans in Congress articulated any memes that got much traction.

As the story moved away from Washington—and the news about the economy seemed to improve—the amount of coverage of the economy also dropped off substantially.

These are a few of the findings from the comprehensive study of media coverage of the economy since Obama took office.

The PEJ report is comprised of three different analyses of the media’s economic coverage. The basic narrative of the coverage was studied from February 1 through August 31, an analysis of about 9,950 stories from television, radio, cable, newspapers and online. A more detailed analysis of the sourcing in stories, the datelines, the events that triggered each story and the differences between media sectors was conducted for a shorter period, from February 1 through July 3. The third element, an examination of the precise phrases and ideas that resonated most fully in the media was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Cornell University and Stanford University. This third element included an even larger universe of media – millions of different web-based outlets, including mainstream news sites, new media sites and blog RSS feeds.

Among the findings:

  • Three storylines have dominated: efforts to help revive the banking sector, the battle over the stimulus package and the struggles of the U.S. auto industry. Together they accounted for nearly 40% of the economic coverage from February 1 through August 31. Other topics related to the crisis have been covered much less. As an example, all the reporting of retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2% of all the economic coverage.
  • Actions by government officials and business leaders drove much of the coverage. The White House and federal agencies alone initiated nearly a third (32%) of economic stories studied through July 3. Business triggered another 21%. About a quarter of the stories (23%) was initiated by the press itself and did not rely on an external news trigger. Ordinary citizens and union workers combined to act as the catalyst for only 2% of the stories about the economy.
  • Fully 76% of the datelines on economic stories studied during the first five months of the Obama presidency were New York (44%) or metro Washington D.C. (32%). Only about one-fifth (21%) of the stories originated in any other city in the U.S., and about a quarter of those emanated from two other major media centers: Atlanta and Los Angeles.
  • When it came to which phrases and ideas reverberated most in a broad array of media, an analysis of some 1.6 million news websites, blogs and other online sources finds that the president dominated. Nine of the top 20 most-quoted phrases came from him. But among Republicans, it was 38-year-old Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s voice that carried the furthest—not any of the national party leaders. Overall, Republicans accounted for just four of the top 20 “memes” tracked in the analysis.
  • Once the economic situation showed some signs of improvement—and the political fights over legislative action subsided—media coverage began to diminish. After accounting for 46% of the overall news coverage in February and March, for instance, coverage of the economic crisis dropped by more than half (to 21% of the newshole studied) from April through June. And in July and August, it fell even further (to 16%). The clearest example came in cable news. Once the political battles subsided, coverage fell by about two-thirds from March to April.