Whose News? The Media and the Distribution of Economic Gains and Losses
(with Tim Hicks, Alan Jacobs, and Scott Matthews)
There is considerable evidence that citizens’ choices at the ballot box are shaped by their assessments of the state of the economy. We also know that economic perceptions are considerably influenced by the news, and that economic news responds differently to different kinds of economic developments. This paper advances our understanding of how the news responds to the economy by investigating _whose_ economic welfare drives economic reporting. In particular, how responsive is economic news to developments shaping the material fortunes of the rich, the broad middle, or the poor? In this paper, we analyze a massive dataset of economic news content over the last three decades in the United States to examine how the tone of economic news responds to real economic developments with differing distributional consequences. The analysis draws on all economic news stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1977 and 2013, together with all economic news from 13 other newspapers among the top 50 in print or digital circulation between the years 1991 and 2013, yielding a dataset of almost 1 million observations. We use Lexicoder, an automated, dictionary-based coding tool with high validity for large samples, to measure the positivity or negativity of all economic stories in the selected newspapers. This allows us to generate annual and quarterly tone scores for the economic news being consumed by a large share of the American electorate over the last three decades (cf. Soroka, Stecula & Wlezien, 2014). We validate this index as a measure of the tone of the broad news environment by demonstrating that it acts as a strong predictor of consumer evaluations of the state of the economy and of the government’s performance in managing the economy (when controlling for actual economic conditions). We then undertake time-series analysis to examine how well the tone of economic news tracks changes in economic fundamentals with differing distributional implications, including median earnings, corporate profits, and capital incomes. The results will provide novel insight into the political economy of economic information, yielding a systematic and detailed portrait of the informational environment within which voters punish and reward their representatives. The findings will also help us make further sense of the mass politics of inequality (Bartels, 2008; Gilens, 2012). Whether low- and middle-income voters are equipped to defend their economic interests at election time depends critically on the distributional content of the informational environment in which they make economic and electoral judgments.
Prepared for presentation at the APSA Annual Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. Link here.
A Canadian “Perceptual Screen”? Partisan Bias in Information Processing
Partisan bias exists when supporters of different parties have systematically different views of reality. A rich literature has shown that Republicans and Democrats systematically view the world in very different ways largely because they resist the assimilation of information not congenial to their party’s interests and goals. Studies of partisan perceptual bias, however, have not typically been extended beyond the American context. This paper presents the preliminary results of a survey experiment conducted on a broadly left-leaning sample of 157 undergraduate political science students. Subjects were exposed to mock economic news that contradicted their reported priors. This news was imbued with partisan implications for either the Liberal or Conservative parties. It shows that students selectively updated their economic evaluations to the benefit of the Liberal Party and to the detriment of the Conservatives. This effect was found largely among those with less political knowledge, providing evidence on how party cues may backfire for less knowledgeable citizens.