Networks Paint Bush Economy As Bleak No Matter What The Facts Really
Media’s bad news bears
deliver negative news 62 percent of the time despite economic
By Amy Menefee
August 17, 2005
- Economic news
heavily negative: Coverage of economic news on the three broadcast
networks was negative 62 percent of the time, despite ongoing good
news of more jobs, low unemployment and economic growth.
- Good news
undermined: Even when good news made it to viewers, journalists
undermined it with bad news 45 percent of the time.
- Negative stories
given more air time: Good news stories were relegated to briefs
roughly two thirds of the time. Negative news received longer
stories and outnumbered positive stories by almost 4-to-1 in that
Â Â Â Â
Which do you want first – the good news or the bad?
Â Â Â Â The good news is that the economy is strong and
growing. The bad news is the news about the economy.
Â Â Â Â The federal deficit is shrinking, unemployment has
fallen, and America has seen more than two straight years of job
growth. But broadcasters have been describing the economy as
“dicey,” “volatile” and “slow.” A Free Market Project analysis of
economic stories on network evening news shows since President
George W. Bush’s second inauguration showed negative news prevailing
62 percent of the time (71 out of 115 stories). That number was
deceiving, however, because even good news often was portrayed as
bad. In 40 stories classified as good economic news, journalists
undermined the good news with bad 45 percent of the time.
Â Â Â Â Good news was relegated to short reports, or briefs, 68
percent of the time, while bad news was treated with full stories.
When briefs on both sides were excluded, the comparison of
full-length news stories showed an overwhelming ratio: negative
stories outnumbered positive ones almost 4-to-1.
Â Â Â Â NBC’s “Nightly News” illustrated the reporting trend
with a glaring disparity between its Aug. 15 stories. Anchor Brian
Williams took about 25 seconds to tell the brief good news of the
federal deficit reduction, which he admitted was due to
“higher-than-expected revenues and a steadily growing economy.”
Immediately, however, he led into another story warning of
“financial hardship” for all, coming from rising gas prices – and
that story went on for more than two and a half minutes. Reporter
Martin Savidge asked, “How long ’til the economy as a whole feels
Â Â Â Â Journalists weren’t consistent from one report to the
next. On the April 26 “CBS Evening News,” Bob Schieffer said,
“Americans are getting a little concerned about where the economy is
headed.” That was just before he reported that new homes were
selling “at the fastest pace on record.”
Â Â Â Â Amidst the confusion, network news has been devoting
far more time to gloomy and often unfounded predictions than to real
news that is positive. ABC’s Betsy Stark went so far as to predict a
slowdown in the economy three days before a jobs report that
delivered 270,000 new jobs, coming in far above projections.
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On the July 20 “CBS Evening News,” Trish Regan found a voice for
the media’s economic deathwatch mentality. She went to the
streets, where, as she put it, “reality trumps forecasts.” Her
man in the street articulated the news shows’ recurring view of
the economy: “It’s very tenuous. It could fall apart at any
moment. One bad piece of news, one additional terrorist attack,
one negative corporate earnings, and it goes right down again.”
Â Â Â Â Regan’s report was supposed to be about Federal Reserve
Chairman Alan Greenspan’s comments on the economy. Greenspan had
said the U.S. outlook was “one of sustained economic growth.” Regan
acknowledged that Greenspan said “the economy is doing fine,” but
she devoted her entire story to undermining his statement. She and
anchor John Roberts worried together about “potential threats to
this economic growth,” including job loss, energy costs and the
Â Â Â Â
The Free Market Project looked at all NBC, CBS, and ABC evening news
stories related to the word “economy” between Jan. 20 and Aug. 5,
2005. The study explored news items that the media explicitly tied
to the health of the economy. The study’s 115 stories addressed
topics like oil prices, the “housing bubble,” monthly unemployment
reports, and other government reports on the state of the economy.
Each of those topics gave rise to other similar stories, but this
analysis focused solely on those the media directly linked to the
Â Â Â Â Stories were classified as negative news if the main
thrust of the report was negative; for example, layoffs at a
particular plant. Likewise, positive stories focused on news such as
a strong job growth report. It was also noted if a story’s direction
changed from positive to negative or vice versa, and stories were
classified as briefs or full reports. Briefs were short one-person
reports, typically delivered by news anchors.
News flash: when stocks drop, it could mean expansion
Â Â Â Â Journalists failed to explain key economic concepts
that could put the news in context. On March 22, as the Fed raised
interest rates because of the expanding economy, ABC’s Betsy Stark
couched the news with worry: “It might stamp out inflation as it
does that, but it also might slow the economy down too much. So
we’re looking ahead with, with a little bit of concern.”
Â Â Â Â On NBC that same night, Anne Thompson said investors
were “nervous” and that the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen
“to its lowest levels since the end of January,” without explaining
that the stocks’ downturn was normal for the situation.
What does a ‘growing’ economy look like?
Â Â Â Â A growing economy is characterized by job creation,
wage growth, steady growth in gross domestic product, and slowly
increasing inflation. In response to a strong unemployment report or
the news of inflation, the stock market will drop in the short term
due to fears of inflation.
Â Â Â Â Dr. Gary Wolfram, the George Munson professor of
political economy at Hillsdale College, explained that the Federal
Reserve Bank increases interest rates to stem the tide of inflation.
Wolfram said if investors think the Fed is going to respond to an
increase in jobs by restricting the supply of money, stocks are
likely to fall. A rate increase causes a slight uptick in credit
card rates, mortgage rates, and interest rates paid into savings
accounts. Also, with more employed workers paying income taxes and
sales taxes, government revenues are expected to rise.
Â Â Â Â All of those things, to a varying extent, have occurred
since the inauguration on January 20. Over the last six months, 1.8
million jobs have been created, pushing the unemployment rate down
from 5.2 to 5.0 percent. GDP has grown an average of 3.2 percent
over the last two financial quarters, and the federal deficit has
narrowed from $412 billion to $331 billion.
So how’s the news?
Â Â Â Â In spite of strong economic growth, reports since the
inauguration have focused on negative events in the economy, such as
individual companies’ layoffs. Natural free-market occurrences, such
as consumers’ shift away from buying American cars and rising prices
for housing and gas, have been portrayed as apocalyptic. Good news
was relegated to brief status 68 percent of the time, while negative
news was only briefed 28 percent of the time, a ratio of more than
2-to-1. That meant negative news was far more likely to be treated
with full reports, including correspondents and interviews.
Â Â Â Â Coverage was filled with economic errors and
misstatements such as these highlights:
Â Â Â Â Oops!: On May 3, ABC had two dreary economic
reports. Charles Gibson introduced one about “the hit from higher
gas prices” and “grim” auto sales figures. And Betsy Stark looked
toward the coming jobs report with pessimism: “the next jobs report
on Friday should tell us about how much the economy slowed down,
Â Â Â Â Just three days later, her tone changed. When the jobs
report came out May 6, it showed “unexpectedly strong” growth,
Elizabeth Vargas said, and Stark added, “Today’s report was
reassuring evidence that the nation’s job market and economy are on
| Â Â Â Turning good to bad:
No matter how good the news, someone had to rain on the parade.
A March 4 story on ABC’s “World News Tonight” was the perfect
example. The story related strong new jobs growth. But at the end of the upbeat report, Dean
Reynolds countered, “But, Peter, while job growth is up, wage growth
is not. And the question now is how long consumers will keep
spending and fueling the economy without a raise in pay.”
Â Â Â Â Looking at the February Employment Situation from the
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Reynolds might have seen that wages had
held steady in the previous month. But had he looked closer, he
would have seen that over the year, hourly earnings had grown by 2.5
percent and weekly earnings by 2.2 percent. To say that wages
weren’t growing was misleading to the audience.
Â Â Â Â Overblown and incomplete: The June 5 “CBS
Evening News” lamented auto factory closings, including an interview
with analyst David Cole, who predicted “a financial crisis for the
country that is way beyond what we saw during the S&L crisis a
number of years ago.” Reporter Mika Brzezinski said consumer shifts
away from American automakers were “forcing secure, high-paying jobs
with full health and pension benefits to go the way of the
Oldsmobile – into oblivion.”
Â Â Â Â The story mentioned the United Auto Workers contract
with General Motors but did not explore how the union’s demands
contributed to the company’s rising health care and pension costs.
It also failed to note that the American companies must be
competitive to stay in business – profits are not guaranteed, though
union pensions are expected to be.
Â Â Â Â Buyer beware: Reporters sometimes acted like
homebuyers should buy only from what journalists considered pure
motives, such as needing shelter. On ABC’s May 19 broadcast, Betsy
Stark cited a National Association of Realtors study to say that 23
percent of houses (hardly a majority) are bought by “investors,
looking to make a quick profit. In the process, they’ve driven
prices to record levels for those other home buyers, looking for a
place to live.”
Â Â Â Â America’s free market allows people to buy whatever
they can afford for any reason or no reason at all. The free market
fosters personal investment and the growth of wealth – and real
estate is one way people invest. The media tended to look at the
stock market as “volatile,” as Stark put it on April 21, but then
they berated people for making what could be considered a stable
investment in real estate. The consumer can’t win.
Â Â Â Â Blaming the free market: On the May 13 “Evening
News,” CBS reporter Bill Whittaker brought a report about the need
for individual retirement savings. Despite the acknowledgement of
personal responsibility that comes with such a topic, Whittaker
overtly criticized the free market, even blaming it for economic
woes: “Deregulation, globalization and intensified competition have
made for a much more volatile economy.” He cast the need for
personal responsibility in a negative light, warning viewers that
their employers wouldn’t be there to bail them out.
Â Â Â Â Memo to Congress: lower my costs!: When it came
to gas prices, journalists repeatedly flogged President George W.
Bush and the energy bill for not lowering consumers’ costs. John
Seigenthaler opened an April 24 “NBC Nightly News” report:
“President Bush is also facing growing pressure from an American
consumer who wants him to do something about the high price of
gasoline in this country.” Likewise, Betsy Stark on ABC’s “World
News Tonight” April 21: “One thing about the House energy bill
almost everyone agrees on, including the president, is that
consumers looking for immediate relief from high energy prices are
likely to be disappointed.”
Â Â Â Â Reports like those worked from the assumption that the
government could and should somehow intervene in pricing – a concept
unseen in stories on prices of everything from movie tickets to
automobiles. Journalists failed to explain how the market determines
prices based on demand for gas and the available supply.
Research Analyst Charles Simpson contributed to this report.