March 1, 2007

Downer For The Dow

No. of Stories
Correction 2800
Plunge 2700
Healthy 1140
Selloff 950
Crash 850
Fear 690
Panic 600
Overdue 200

As the Dow’s downward arc exceeded the 500-point mark on the afternoon of February 27, a sense of jittery freefall began to infect the live cable news coverage.

“Right now, we're off the charts. I can't tell you when the Dow dropped this kind of level,” declared CNN’s Susan Lisovicz, reporting from the trading floor. “I'm guessing that it occurred in the aftermath of September 11.”

The market’s fall was the lead item on all three major network newscasts on the evening of February 27. The next morning, it generated front-page headlines that ranged from the analytical (“Wall St. Tumble Adds To Worries About Economies” in the New York Times) to the somber (“Wall Street has worst day since Sept. 11” in the Tuscaloosa News) to the panicky (“What Now Dow?” screamed the New York Daily News headline).

When the dust had cleared, a market that had been enjoying a long rally had suddenly lost about $600 billion in value. The Dow dropped by 416.02 points, the biggest single-day point loss since the market’s re-opening after the 9/11 attacks.

The Wall Street wallop was a huge national and international story on a day when markets plummeted around the world. To get a sense of the tone and tenor of the extensive media coverage, PEJ conducted a search of the stories on Google News for Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, matching the term “stock market” with a number of descriptors.

Yes, there was plenty of coverage that accentuated the scary aspects of the slide.

The word “crash,” for instance, with its ominous conjuring up of the 1929 disaster, showed up in about 850 stories about the stock market. “Fear” made 690 appearances and its first cousin “panic” was included in about 600 stories. The word “plunge,” which would seem to aptly describe what happened to the Dow on February 27, was included in 2,700 stories.

But despite all those nervous-sounding nouns, the overall coverage seemed to be something other than panic. The word “selloff,” certainly a neutral term, appeared in about 950 stories. But even more prominent were terms that suggested that what happened on Wall Street was not a cause for real alarm—at least not yet.

The word “overdue,” for example, appeared in about 200 stories while the word “healthy” (as in one investor’s comment that this “probably is a healthy thing for the stock market") was found 1,140 times.

Even more notable was the frequency of a word that that suggests what happened in the market was, if not a blessing, then at least a necessary bloodletting.

The word the Google search results most often paired with “stock market”—about 2,800 times—was “correction.”

That sentiment may have been borne out when the Dow bounced back by about 53 points on February 28. So for now, the headline splashed across the front page of Newsday, “Dow Drops 416 But…Don’t Panic,” seemed to capture the mood.