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The mainstream media has a profound impact on politics, helping everyday Americans determine what topics people think are important, shape how they feel about issues, and even how they vote.
Alternative media outlets such as blogs and social networking sites have proliferated in recent years, yet most people still receive their news from the mainstream media, which is especially true for economic news. This report focuses on how the mainstream media covers the economy, a subject where fundamental political questions arise about how income is generated and allocated among individual Americans and the businesses and companies they work for and sometimes invest in. Specifically, in its coverage of economic issues, does the media provide a balanced discussion of who gets what and why? Or instead is coverage biased toward a particular interest group?
Based on a unique, quantitative study, this report finds that media coverage of economic issues is biased and consistently fails to live up to expectations of balance and fairness. On a range of economic issues, the perspective of workers is largely missing from media coverage, while the views of business are frequently presented. The findings are based on analysis of coverage of four economic issues—employment, minimum wage, trade, and credit card debt—in the leading newspaper and television outlets in 2007.
Included in this analysis is coverage by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, U.S.A. Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—the five papers with the largest circulation nationwide—alongside the three major TV broadcast networks, ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News, as well as the three leading cable news networks, CNN, FOX News, and CNBC. The four economic issues were chosen because they represent a range of economic issues that impact ordinary citizens and that many citizens have defined opinions about.
Following is a highlight of the report’s findings:
- Overall, representatives of business were quoted or cited nearly two-and-a-half times as frequently as were workers or their union representatives.
- In coverage of both the minimum wage and trade, the views of businesses were sourced more than one-and-a-half times as frequently as those of workers.
- In coverage about employment, businesses were quoted or cited over six times as frequently as were workers.
- On only one issue that we examined, credit card debt, was coverage more balanced, presenting the perspectives of ordinary citizens in the same pro- portion as those of business.
Biased coverage matters for three primary reasons. Our belief in democratic debate demands informed citizens, and requires that different points of view are allowed to be heard. Journalistic standards of objectivity call for balanced coverage. And, perhaps most importantly, media coverage influences people’s opinions and behavior.
Critics often claim that the media has a political bias, with most of the debate focusing on whether the media is liberal or conservative, and whether coverage favors Democrats or Republicans. This debate, while important, ignores a more fundamental question about which points of view are allowed to be heard at all.
Because the model of objective journalism calls for sources, not journalists, to give opinions about news, quotations and citations are the way journalists tell their stories. Who journalists choose to include in their stories sets the range of debate, and determines the kinds of perspectives the public is allowed to hear. The mainstream media represented in the range of publications surveyed for this report serves as a gatekeeper, amplifying the voices of some while making it more difficult for others to reach a mass audience.
Although the media cannot and should not give equal credence to each and every perspective, both journalistic standards and our expectations for democratic debate call for the media to accurately represent all sides of a story and allow the major players to have a voice. We should expect, for example, that balanced coverage of economic issues would commonly include the perspectives of both business and workers.
After all, these groups represent primary actors in the economy. Each has a significant interest in the topic, and each group often, but certainly not always, has a defined point of view.
Of course, different businesses and different groups of workers boast complex inter-relationships—as bosses and workers, as holders of equity in companies either directly or through pension funds and mutual funds, or as citizens in local communities where businesses are based and workers live and work. These interrelationships are not easily quantified, yet the four economic issues chosen to survey in this paper illustrate a profound bias in favor of business over workers in mainstream press coverage.
Indeed, the report’s findings of biased sourcing may not be surprising to those who follow the media closely. But they are stark and raise serious questions about whether the media is fairly covering economic issues, whether the media is living up to its own standards, and whether the media is properly serving democracy.
There are many potential explanations for this kind of biased coverage, all of them probably true to some degree. The influence of corporate ownership and advertisers, the decline of the labor beat and “shoe-leather” journalism, the failure of unions to effectively communicate with the media, and the personal and political biases of reporters and editors are all common and reasonable explanations.
But the best explanation for the kind of bias described in this report is that journalists have a preference for elite sources, such as government or business representatives, over ordinary citizens.6 In short, it is just easier for a reporter to talk to a professional, such as a business spokesperson, than to find a good quote from a worker or ordinary citizen who does not represent a set interest group.
This is not to say that mainstream reporters do not talk to average workers or individual citizens for their stories. Coverage of pure consumer issues, for example, often give the perspective of ordinary citizens equal treatment—often in conflict with business interests that deliver consumer goods and services. Indeed, the results of the survey show that on the one economic issue that is also a consumer issue—credit card debt—reporters do seek out ordinary citizens for their stories.
The other three economic issues surveyed in this report show that in economic coverage of the news by the mainstream press there is a decided preference for elite sources, especially business representatives. More importantly, the report suggests that, whatever the source of bias, it can be overcome. If editors and journalists actively seek out the perspective of workers, as they do for consumers, media coverage of the economy would significantly improve.
Read the full report (pdf)
Learn more from the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s American Worker Project.
Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project