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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.