How Healthy Is the Economy? It Depends Where You Get Your News

There have been a flurry of economic papers addressing the issue of media bias or media “slant” in recent years. Leading examples of these include research by Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo, Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, and Andrei Shleifer and Sendhil Mullainathan.

In the introduction to their paper published in the American Economic Review, Shleifer and Mullainathan provide the following hypothetical example:


Would this sort of thing actually happen in the real world? You be the judge.

Here are the headlines from Thursday’s New York Times and Washington Post:


The full texts of the New York Times story and the Washington Post story are here and here.

(Hat tip: Matt Gentzkow)


This issue on bias and the use of different sorts of wording to convey different impressions or reactions to the same sets of facts is pretty much the whole premise and core of Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. He goes very heavily into statistical analysis of working used by various major media outlets when dealing with similar situations that differed largely in terms of which side was doing the deeds being reported on. So, for instance, comparing the wording used in describing a Catholic priest killed by Polish Communists vs Catholic nuns killed by US-backed insurgents in Central America.


This doesn't represent bias.

If we're in a recession, the second headline could apply.

If we're not, the first could apply.

Anything else is just bad journalism that doesn't take the facts into account,

However, if its a Republican paper, the article will be how you can profit on the stock market from this trend and they'll minimize the human fallout from the problem, trying to keep the counter productive tax cuts for the wealthy. Now that's bias!

Globaltalk 21

Much of journalism consists of deciding on a narrative, then finding quotable people and other examples for illustration, and economic journalism is no exception. In fact, this is particularly easy to do on the economy, since there will always be any number of analysts and strategists in financial institutions who argue one side or other of any question and everywhere in between.


It angers me that in the US, where people are supposed to have choices over everything including news sources they can follow, the three top cable news channels and newspapers are so heavily partisan. CNN, Fox and MSNBC are embarrassing. So are The NYTimes and Wall Street Journal. Why can't there be a fair and non-partisan 24-hr news channel in the mould of PBS or a newspaper like Christian Science Monitor?


Truly, I'd like to see this headline on all papers, "Economy Grows 1.9%" Leave out the qualifiers; "tepid", "solid" and the like and save that for the Op Ed pages. The news pages should report the facts. In a news story, I'm not interested in their take on the quality of the growth or lack thereof.

I know, I know, I know--it'll never happen. Gotta put a spin on it, show off your headline writing skills.

Besides, some time in the next 30 to 60 days that 1.9% will be revised upward and it will not be given the same high-visibility treatment as the original story. (What am I saying? High visibility treatment in a NEWSPAPER?) It'll be buried on page D-32, below the fold, next to the funeral home ad.

Sci Ed

It's a classical case of "is the glass half empty or is it half full," unless it is politically motivated. It would be interesting to examine articles reporting similar data under different party administration and compare the number of pessimistic articles vs. optimistic articles in the two cases.

Science Editor

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Jeff S.

I believe that this type of spin has been around forever. The only reason we are noticing this now is the influx of information at our fingertips as provided by the internet. 50 years ago a person got their news by buying a newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching television. With Newspapers, a person was probably unlikely to buy 4-5 newspapers to compare the spin on a certain story. With radio and TV the news was on different stations, but at the same time, so there was little possibility for comparison. Now a person is just a few clicks away from hundreds of different news sources, and can cheaply compare different sources and scrutinize them for bias. 24 hour news channels (CNN, FOX, MSNBC) also make comparisons easy.

Ralph Winslow

When you've recently lost the job you'd held for the last eleven years, you tend to nod your head at the one headline, and stare with incredulity at the other. I guess both beauty and ugliness lie in the eye of the beholder. I look forward to the results of this election while bearing in mind that "No one ever went broke betting on the gullibility of the American public.".


As to whether there is bias in the media, I think we can take them at their word when they're as candid as Daniel Okrent was a few years ago:

THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?


Published: July 25, 2004

OF course it is.


"If it bleeds, it leads."

This has always been the stance of mainstream media. If the economy is hemorrhaging jobs & GDP growth it grabs more attention than "GDP grows at .1% better than expected".

Nothing new in terms of news bias, it just happens to be about the economy.


I noticed the NYT headline because I was surprised growth was that high and, I must admit, an assumption on my part that later revisions tend to add not subtract, which might be wrong in this case.


Gentzkow rules!


that's why adults read between the lines


Optimists: it's really foggy today.

Pessimists: the sky is falling!


Ah, the marvelous phenomenon known as "spin." And to think that folks in the mass media wonder why so many people distrust journalists ... we have a side-by-side comparison which shows how reporters can tell the same story in two very different ways.

Which of these are we to trust? Is either story trustworthy at all? If the above-linked poll is correct, more than half of Americans have decided that neither can be correct.

Journalism in the US ... especially print-media journalism such as newspapers ... is fading fast. Their current business model is collapsing and they have yet to adopt a workable new one. Many papers are clinging to life by just a hair.

Yet they continue to "spin" the news all over the place, leaving readers no choice but to distrust them. And they wonder why no one buys papers any more.



It probably also depends on how much money you have!


This is what happens when news outlets focus on providing opinions or points of view, rather than reporting the news to the public. And this had been made prevalent due to laziness of the public, who have outsourced their analysis and critical thinking to the media and just wants to be fed packaged points of view.

May be if we start exercising our brains a bit, we might stop this trend of being led like sheep, and then we don't have to choose where we want to get the prepackaged news from, and rather get the actual data and form our own opinions.


Could "media bias" please be a SuperFreakonimics subject? I know Farhad Manjoo has touched on it, but we normal people could use some help sorting through the equations in those referenced studies.


Some people have suggested that reporters are biased to see the news as bad, because the news media itself is in a recession and their jobs are at risk.


I agree with 1, The local paper here just laid off 50 people.