The media’s coverage of the troubled economy has shifted repeatedly in the last year from a narrative about mortgages to one about recession, a banking crisis and now largely gas prices—a changing storyline and one that differs from medium to medium.
Moreover, 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.
These are some of the findings of a new detailed examination of how the American news media have covered the economic slowdown over the last two years, produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The economy has been a bigger story in older media—print, the three network evening newscasts and traditional news radio—and a noticeably smaller one in the newer—the more opinion-oriented platforms of cable TV and talk radio.
The relationship between media coverage and public concerns about the economy is a complex one. Going back to late 2007, Americans’ attention to the issue generally outstripped the level of media interest. While the public considers the economy its No. 1 concern, for instance, the media have been far more interested in the presidential campaign—by a factor of nearly 5-to-1 between January 2007 and June 2008. But it’s also true that public attention to the story and pessimism about the state of the economy both grew as the media began to pay more attention in 2008.
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 approximately 1,955 hours of programming on the three major cable news channels, 1369 on network morning and evening TV, 978 on radio, and 469 days’ editions of 21 different newspapers, and the five leading news websites, some 48 different news outlets in all.
Among the study's findings:
- Overall, the economy has been the No. 2 story so far in 2008 in the U.S. media, moving ahead of the Iraq war. But coverage has not come close to that of presidential campaign. For the first six months of this year, the various storylines that make up the story of the economy, including rising energy costs, have filled 8% of the newshole studied by PEJ. The next biggest story was events inside Iraq at 3%. The race for president, by contrast, has filled 37% of the newshole.
- Often the press coverage has lagged behind economic events, sometimes by months. In the first quarter of 2008, for instance, media attention to a possible recession began to spike, though in reality the economy was strengthening some, because economists were arguing about data from the last quarter of 2007. Then, as the economy began to weaken again in the second quarter, the media narrative shifted away from concerns about an economic slowdown. 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. After press coverage of the economy jumped in the first quarter of 2008, the number of Americans who considered the economy to be ailing doubled. The economic picture improved slightly during that period.
- What Americans know about the economy, and how much they know, also may vary based on what media they consume. Parts of the economy are a bigger story in one medium than another, and some media are generally less concerned overall. Gas prices, for instance, are a bigger TV story. Banking and housing are bigger in print. And unless there is a clear political wedge issue to argue about, the economy does not tend to become much of story on cable news or on talk radio, at least not during the key time slots when most people are tuned in. Since January 2007, the economy has been about a third as big a story on cable news and talk radio as in newspapers and on network television.