The myth of media pessimism about the economy
Summary: Do the major media give a negative slant to the economic news, perhaps to help Obama win the election? Maybe they hate America, or slant the news by “if the economy bleeds, it leads.” This post reports on a small test, examining the economic reporting of three major newspapers in search of media bias.
Two recent posts discussed the “Dude, where’s my recession” meme.
Making us dumber, chanting “Dude, where’s my recession?” (3 June 2008) — Economic columnists do a disservice to their readers by ignoring the data showing a weakening economy.
When did “Dude” predict a recession? How severe? (6 June 2008) — Why accurate economic forecasting is difficult, what we know about current conditions, and warnings from a top economist.
“The point of that tagline is that the MSM and a lot of lefties are slavering, hoping, pining, praying for there to be a recession RIGHT FREAKIN’ NOW, so that they can try to hang that around McCain’s neck.”
“We may get a recession. We may not. But the media is already there big time. I think that’s the context, responding to media doomsayers that seem all too eager to jump the gun, albeit without any ideological motive of course and without a looming presidential election having anything to do with it. Today when I opened Google I saw three headlines predicting economic disaster. It’s like the media’s Katrina coverage all over again.”
I asked in the comments (and in reply to emails) for examples of articles by these journalist-doomsayers. Or examples of headlines claiming that we were already in a recession, stories predicting certain doom. No replies, no evidence.
Today the Instapundit repeats the “Dude, where’s my recession” with the explanation …
Are we in a recession now, as media folks keep claiming?
Using the magic of Google News I searched for evidence of this, examining (skimming) all stories containing the word recession back to 13 May in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times.
How many journalists did I find claiming that we were in a recession? Zero. Approx. 1/4 reported economic news with an upbeat quote leading; usually an economist or financial expert saying we were not (or probably not) in a recession — usually counterbalanced with an offsetting quote. Approx. the same fraction lead with a downbeat quote leading. The rest were the typical blur, as in “some economists believe” this or that.
Were the words associated with “recession” slanted? The most common words used were fear of, brink of, brace for, dodging, prevent, worries about, avoid, tipping toward, likelihood of, teetering toward, teetering on edge of, possibility of, skirting a, worries about. All technically correct.
Is it wrong or even irresponsible of the media to so frequently discuss the prospect of a recession? Consider the big picture this year. Almost every economic indicator has slowed, with most at or near levels associated with recessions in the past. And accompanying that we have…
- The housing bust, one of the most severe since WWII.
- The credit crunch, one of the most severe since WWII.
- Oil prices rising — now at $130/barrel, a record high (even in real terms).
Not warning of a possible recession would be irresponsible, even delusional. Economic statistics work for us like the whiskers on a cat. As we move into the unknown future, the we rely on the media to report these, our only hints at what lies ahead. Prudent people act on such signals. Build savings. Be careful when starting new projects or switching jobs. Carefully watch the risk in their households’ balance sheets.
In my (subjective) opinion, the current bias in America tends to excessive optimism. The Instapundit shows this today by reporting strong (but dumb) retail sales but not the more important new unemployment claims data (esp. continuing claims, now the highest since February 2004). Watch the trend in economic stats; they tell more about the future than does their absolute level.
The assumption of media pessimism, even doomsterism, appears to be an urban legend. It grows with each repetition of “Dude, where’s my recession” intended to counterbalance media bias — with bothering to prove or even illustrate that bias.
More generally, this fits with a larger pattern on the Internet: folks blithely passing on false information with good intentions. Peak oil stories that might be exaggerated, but heighten the public’s awareness. Climate scare stories far beyond actual forecasts (e.g., rising oceans), to motivate necessary public policy action. And slamming the media about bias we know is there, but do not bother to prove.
The Internet can make us smarter, but only if we try harder when creating content — and seeking sites to read that have higher standards. Just a thought for your consideration ….
I did a quick survey — this is a blog, not MIT — to get the geist of recent coverage. Certainly I missed a few slanted stories. Other newspapers may have different slants, optimistic or pessimistic. Also, this ignores TV news; tracking their stories is beyond my resources.
Does the media report bad economic news more prominently than good news? As in “if the economy bleeds, it leads.” This little study did not test this theory (my guess is yes).
This post does not say that the media has no political bias. There are many clear instances of past bias, and many studies indicating long-term political slants (of various kinds). This post examines one narrow subject, in the here and now.
Please share your comments by posting below, relevant and brief please. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Other posts about the Internet: does it make us smarter or dumber?
- Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web (7 February 2008)
- Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis — and some lessons learned (8 February 2008)
- What do blogs do for America? (26 February)
- The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008)
- Euphoria about the Bakken Formation (10 April 2008)
- The Internet makes us dumber: the Bakken euphoria, a case study (15 April 2008)
For more information about geopolitical implications of current economic trends
A brief note on the US Dollar. Is this like August 1914? (8 November 2007) — How the current situation is as unstable financially as was Europe geopolitically in early 1914.
The post-WWII geopolitical regime is dying. Chapter One (21 November 2007) — Why the current geopolitical order is unstable, describing the policy choices that brought us here.
We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, Chapter II (28 November 2007) — A long list of the warnings we have ignored, from individual experts and major financial institutions (links included).
Diagnosing the eagle, chapter I — the housing bust (6 December 2007) — What the housing bust shows about America’s fitness to survive.
Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III – death by debt (8 January 2008) – Origins of the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2006; why the down cycle will be so severe.
Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn (24 January 2008) – How will this recession end? With re-balancing of the global economy, so that the US goods and services are again competitive. No more trade deficit, and we can pay out debts.
- A happy ending to the current economic recession (12 February 2008) – The political actions which might end this downturn, and their long-term implications.
- What will America look like after this recession? (18 March 208) — More forecasts. The recession might change so many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
The most important story in this week’s newspapers (22 May 2008) — How solvent is the US government? They report the facts to us every year.
To see the all posts on this subject, go to the archive for The End of the Post-WWII Geopolitical Regime.