September 12, 2004
Do Newspapers Make Good News Look Bad?
ONSERVATIVE pundits routinely accuse the news media of injecting a liberal bias into coverage of issues from abortion to gun control to gay marriage.
Now, two months before the presidential election, the economy has been invited to the culture wars. In a new paper, Kevin A. Hassett and John R. Lott Jr., economists at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization in Washington, say they have discovered that economic reporters commit the same archetypal sin: slanting the news unequivocally in favor of the Democrats.
How can a nugget of news like the economy's addition of 308,000 new jobs in March - the biggest monthly gain in about four years - yield a report that The Associated Press labeled "Bond prices tumble on jobs data"? Bias, the researchers suspected.
The two economists combed through 389 newspapers and A.P. reports contained in the LexisNexis database from January 1991 through May 2004, during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and
They found that Mr. Clinton received better headlines than the two Republican presidents. Even after adjusting the data to compensate for differences in economic performance under the three presidents, the Republicans received 20 to 30 percent fewer positive headlines, on average, for the same type of news, they concluded.
For instance, they said, the unemployment rate in the Clinton administration averaged 5.2 percent, only three-tenths of a percentage point less than it has under George W. Bush. But while 44 percent of Mr. Clinton's headlines on unemployment were positive, only 23 percent of President Bush's headlines on the subject have been upbeat.
They found that as a group, the nation's 10 largest newspapers and The Associated Press were even more skewed. According to the researchers, this group gave Republican administrations 20 to 40 percent fewer positive headlines than those given to Mr. Clinton, on average. Among the top 10 newspapers, they said that all except The Houston Chronicle had a pro-Democratic leaning, though the margin for error in their calculations was too large to be meaningful for most of them individually.
"We have not constructed tests that identify a motive for the bias," Mr. Hassett said. "A desire to aid the political fortunes of Democrats could explain the patterns we see in the data." The research has attracted some interest outside of conservative circles. Christopher D. Carroll, an economist at Johns Hopkins University who served on Mr. Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, said the paper by Mr. Hassett and Mr. Lott was "the first serious statistical attempt to look at the question that I've seen."
The researchers said liberal bias in economic reporting was also uncovered in a 1988 study by Ted J. Smith III of Virginia Commonwealth University. In it, he said that network television coverage during the Reagan administration focused on negative economic stories, criticized the administration for bad news and failed to give it credit for good news.
Although many news-media watchdogs take business reporters to task for biases, few say the problem stems from a political slant. "One of the main biases we've found in business reporting is cheerleading," said Jim Naureckas, an editor at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which is on the left side of the political spectrum. He argues that the news media tend to favor the point of view of business because they depend on advertising from business.
Alan S. Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve who also served as an economic adviser to Mr. Clinton, said that, if anything, current economic coverage favored Mr. Bush by letting the administration get away with blaming 9/11 for the economy's poor performance.
Jack Shafer, the media critic of Slate, the Web journal, was skeptical of the study, saying that it was based solely on headlines, not on an appraisal of actual news articles. "A headline is not coverage," he said.
While the researchers of the American Enterprise Institute claim to expose the political bias of the reporting, Mr. Carroll said, it was unlikely that they succeeded in stripping out other factors. He said the reporting of economic statistics depended on broad perceptions of the state of the economy, which are influenced by many variables. The fact that the economy did better under Mr. Clinton than either of the Bushes probably affected the coverage more than the researchers allowed for.
Moreover, Mr. Carroll pointed out that the results had large statistical margins of error. "I'm not persuaded that the results have any statistical significance," he said.
AND what of the researchers' own objectivity? Critics question both their scholarship and their motivations in releasing this research in the middle of a presidential campaign in which the economy is no small issue. Mr. Hassett was an adviser to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, during his bid for the presidency in 2000, and a co-author of "Dow 36,000," a wildly bullish analysis of the stock market's prospects.
Mr. Lott's research supporting gun ownership as a crime deterrent has also come under criticism. He acknowledged that he assumed a pseudonym - Mary Rosh- to write his own praise and defend his positions in online debate on that subject from 2000 through January 2003.
Mr. Lott said that the things he had said in the guise of Ms. Rosh were, indeed, truthful.
And Mr. Hassett and Mr. Lott said that their research is a serious attempt to quantify political bias, an area that has rarely been studied statistically. This hasn't convinced all critics, of course.
"To even base a story on Lott's work at this point in time is to demonstrate a pronounced bias toward right-wing hacks," said Brad DeLong, a liberal-leaning economist at the University of California at Berkeley.