Do Newspapers Use Economic News to Sway Public Opinion?

As Levitt has noted in the past, media bias is a hot topic among some economists. Typically the bias is reflected in a paper’s reporting (as Dubner pointed out here). But can newspapers also influence public opinion based on their coverage of economic matters?

That’s the question addressed in the working paper “Partisan Bias in Economic News: Evidence on the Agenda-Setting Behavior of U.S. Newspapers,” by Valentino Larcinese, a government professor at the London School of Economics; Riccardo Puglisi, a political science professor at M.I.T.; and James Snyder, an M.I.T. economist. Studying a “large sample of U.S. newspapers during the last decade,” they identified each paper as liberal or conservative based on its endorsement policy. Then they examined the total number of articles each publication ran on economic issues like unemployment, inflation, trade deficits and the federal budget. Here’s how they summarize their findings:

We find evidence that newspapers with [a] pro-Democratic endorsement pattern systematically give more coverage to high unemployment when the incumbent president is a Republican than when the president is Democratic, compared to newspapers with [a] pro-Republican endorsement pattern. This result is not driven by the partisanship of readers. There is on the contrary no evidence of a partisan bias — or at least of a bias that is correlated with the endorsement policy — for stories on inflation, budget deficit or trade deficit.

So now we know that Republican administrations are slammed for high unemployment rates. But along the same logic, are pro-Republican newspapers pushing stories on inflation, deficits, or social issues during a Democratic president’s term? Either way, we may be giving the President too much credit for his influence over any of these matters.


Nathaniel

I'm genuinely curious, at what point in the "past decade" was unemployment not an issue under the one Republican president, and when was it an issue under the one Democratic president?

The whole premise of the study seems flawed -- Clinton was in office during a record-breaking economic boom. Bush was in office during a recession. I don't see how reporting on the economic reality would indicate bias. Why would you write lots of articles on unemployment when it is low?

Matt

Response to #5:
That's irrelevant to the purposes of this story. The researchers did not analyze whether the media reported differently on Bush and Clinton's presidencies. They only looked at whether different newspapers reported the same bits of news differently and concluded that they do. One could do the same study during a Democratic administration, but it wouldn't tell you anything about the difference in coverage between the two administrations--unless, of course, the unemployment numbers were similar and trending in the same direction--but even then, there would be so many external factors to control for that I'm not sure the resulting data would be worth anything.

Marco

This should not be a shock to anyone, except perhaps journalists who in my experience don't see the bias in their reporting. It's funny, I'll be the first to admit places like Fox News are biased, but trying to get anyone liberal to admit ANY mainstream media outlets are is biased toward liberals is like pulling teeth.

The real question to me is, are these papers actually successful in convincing people of their views?

I find that most people tend to seek the news they like/want to hear. This is why Fox News is such a success; millions of people watching left leaning CNN wanted news that matched their political views; Rupert delivered to an under served market.

If only some newspapers/media outlets would realize that people seek out get like minded news, they might be more successful ... why the decline in viewer/readership at most main stream media outlets, while conservative outlets like Fox increase their viewer/readership? It's the market … give people what they want, not what you want.

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Charles

Responding to post #1

News should not be a market. It is information, having so much bias information is what is wrong with the media today. Most major news channels are pure crap right now because they just try to give the viewer what they want instead of actually reporting news. This is the reason Anna Nicole's death was probably the biggest story of the year and Brittney Spears gets more news cover than anyone in politics.

There are places where capitalism fails and this is clearly one of those areas. It is spurring the polarity of politics today and being echoed throughout DC and voters everywhere.

Dennis

Who isn't biased? Everyone of us is a product derived after years or decades of existence.

We all are long on opinions and short on facts. We also form our opinions then look for facts to back them up rather than vice versa. I feel we should interpret any and all news pieces through a skeptical filter and as readers (viewers) we should be more empiric.

Also, the news media tends to sensationalize most news stories and another of their biases is that they produce negative pieces as opposed to positive ones. After all, news is a market and a big one. Negative news sells.

I don't entirely agree with the comment that the news media is one area where capitalism fails although I see your point. If it comes between a capitalistic news system, or a government-controlled one, I'd rather the government stick to trying to run itself than to establish new laws to control communications.

Ike

I must disagree, Charles. This is NOT where capitalism fails, it is a stunning success. There was a market for competing ideas, and it has been filled.

The issue is not conscious bias. It just so happens that two of the most overtly liberal cities in the USA (NYC and DC) happen to house the most influential agenda-setting newspapers. The writers and editors who are most likely to want to live in those cities will be more aggressive about getting jobs there. And being surrounded by like-minded people, they are oblivious to the bubble in which they are firmly ensconced. A nice, safe, liberal cocoon.

No bias on my part - that's just the way it is.

mathking

A thought struck me while reading this. During President Clinton's term in the late 1990s unemployment was low and real wages were rising. At the start of the Bush presidency it was rising. So I would have to question just how much high unemployment coverage there would have been under a Democratic president in the last decade no matter what the bias of the paper.

David R.

I would like to see the matter of media ownership studied. I imagine that what the owners want is a far more important bias than that of lowly reporters who are assigned stories, only to have them edited by someone above.

I also imagine that the strongest bias of all is pro-advertisers. That is why the manifest racketeering of American cell phone companies gets so little media attention. Cell phone companies are media's best advertisers.

Naresh

Over the drinks this weekend, I was with one of my friend's father who has spent his time in Georgia Tech. during his youth.
When I'd (I'm an Indian) opined that American public in general are considerate 'n moderate; he replied that they're media controlled/driven.
Probably your post bolsters his views.

Brian

Responding to post #2:

"News should not be a market. It is information, having so much bias information is what is wrong with the media today."

Well, then, where do you propose it come from, dropped already printed from the sky? Maybe you trust the government to produce unbiased news?

You are right to distrust the media -- each outlet has an objective in its reporting. Fortunately, capitalism has brought us many outlets, with different objectives, so that in the middle we may find the truth.

Dan

You can't say Republican Presidents are being slammed. The study, doesn't determine whether the Democratic papers are being overly critical of the Republican President or if the Republican papers aren't being critical enough. My guess would be a little of both. It just “proves” bias. I'd be interested to see if this holds true for a Democratic president or flips. I think it's possible that the papers lean democratic because they focus on issues that also tend to be issues that democrats focus on. To prove anyone's bias you need to show that their reporting changes with the party affiliation of the president.

Dr. Troy Camplin

Everyone is biased. The only way to overcome bias within something like the media is to proliferate bias, to have more and more of it, and to make it more obvious (honest). I go to CNN and Fox News both because I do want to see what both ideologies think (on a side note: I noticed that, online at least, Fox News give more actual news (rather than fluff pieces like celebrity news) than does CNN -- which might be another reason why Fox News does so well). We might as well not complain about the media not being biased, because it is and always was and always will be -- so long as intelligent beings are involved. It's not a market failure -- government-controlled media are biased too (and in far more insidious ways). The problem as I see it is that there are not enough view points out there. We have conservative and liberal viewpoints, but few libertarian, Marxist, green, etc. And my world view is almost never represented in the media.

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Silvanus

If you are interested in the theory used in the working paper, Agenda Setting, it may be instructive to read the original papers by McComb and Shaw as it related to the media's coverage of Nixon's Watergate scandal.

Essentially what Agenda Setting is about is ontology- or the worldview of organizational structures, but most primarily, the editorial boards at major news organizations.

It is important to realize that the "objective news" ideology is something new. For most of our nation's history, papers were had clear ideological and partisan views. This was the state of papers in our nation's founding and the state of papers when McKinley was shot. The political parties often owned newspapers. Many of the Revolutionary heroes of this country were newspaper owners, who espoused their views against the British Crown in the paper. Oh noes! Political partisan bias! How terrible!

The media conglomerates own the media- the only real newspapers left anymore are the small town papers reporting local events, the shame page (arrest, citations, etc.) and the like. If you're interested in news- then turn off your television, cancel your newspaper subscriptions and start an RSS feed.

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SMK

Perhaps the endorsement is rather the outcome of the news they've uncovered. That is to say, the reporting is unbiased and the endorsement is determined by what has been reported.

Joshua

The problem with this is that it assumes that unemployment does not, in fact, vary according to which party holds the presidency. That's not the case; since 1960, unemployment under Democratic presidents has, in fact, averaged more than a percentage point less than under Republicans.

As Michael Kinsley noted in the Washington Post, "Democratic presidents have a better record on inflation (averaging 3.13 percent compared with 3.89 percent for Republicans) and on unemployment (5.33 percent versus 6.38 percent). Unemployment went down in the average Democratic year, up in the average Republican one."

Setting aside the question of causality, does the paper adjust for the actual unemployment rates at the time? Intuitively, it would make sense to report more on unemployment when it's high and less when it's low.

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Badger

Responding to post #2
"There are places where capitalism fails and this is clearly one of those areas."
So, according to Charles, press quality of noncapitalist press stalwarts such as the Pravda (http://english.pravda.ru/) and the Granma (http://www.granma.cu/) are "clearly" higher... Gimme a break please!

clone12

Why would pro-Republican newspapers publish news about the deficits when they have been driven up by Republican presidents?

david

@2

"News should not be a market. It is information, having so much bias information is what is wrong with the media today."

As was pointed out by another post, Newspapers were created and operated by political parties ... when did this holier than thou: "Newspapers should be objective" thing get invented anyway? I just see it at Newspapers (other media outlets) reverting to what once was.

The bottom line is you cannot get an 'objective' version of anything, so long as a person is writing the story and a person is reading it. You are best off knowing what people's/publishers motives, incentives, and biases are and taking that into consideration when consuming their information.

Arctic Goldfinger

I don't think the problem with the press is bias, but sheep-like acceptance of the economic information fed to them be the government. It does not seem to have dawned on the press that a report, such as the Consumer Price Index, is not the result of a scientific calculation, although they report it as if it were. The CPI is a VERY political number and could be constructed any number of different ways. As it happens, since the Clinton administration, it has been constructed in such a way as to minimize inflation to the point where it has become a joke. The tragic part is that these phony numbers are the basis on which Social Security COLAs are calculated and, as a result, the poor are getting poorer and poorer. Not even the liberal press has caught on to that and given it the in-depth treatment it deserves. If the press would be inquiring and skeptical I wouldn't care how biased they were. Their readers would know much more than they know now.

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Zack

To #8 -- people are often quick to slam the idea of government-supported news media (often by reference to the state-run media outlets of cold-war era boogeyman countries), but I find it very interesting to see that, generally, the news sources most critical of the government, at least of late, have been entities like NPR, PBS, and the BBC. Plus, if its raw data you are after, statistics or other information collected and published by various government agencies are about as good as it gets. Anyway, not to dispute the argument that markets are great or anything, but more to point out that markets are tools, and nothing more magical than that. Other tools can work, too.