In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Eun A Jo, covers the new article by Alan M. Jacobs, University of British Columbia, J. Scott Matthews, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Timothy Hicks, University College London and Eric Merkley, University of Toronto, “Whose News? Class-Biased Economic Reporting in the United States“.
News is intended to inform the public. Economic news, in particular, tells the public how the economy is doing and whether—by implication—the government is doing a good job. But what happens if the news the public consumes is only true for some?
In their study for the American Political Science Review, Alan M. Jacobs, J. Scott Matthews, Timothy Hicks, and Eric Merkley show that, in fact, news about the economy in the United States is highly biased; it paints a picture of the economy that much more closely tracks the gains of the very rich than it does the welfare of most average Americans.
The authors analyze news articles from dozens of highly circulated US newspapers over the last 40 years. Using machine-learning, they collect all stories from these newspapers that concern the overall performance of the US economy. Crucially, they remove any articles that appeared in the business section, because these often focus on the stock market and corporate earnings that make their coverage explicitly class-biased. The authors then measure the tone of the economic news and test whether it accurately reflects the growth of different income classes.
The findings are staggering. First, the content of economic news becomes overwhelmingly positive when incomes of the rich grow—but it is uncorrelated with the changes in welfare of the lesser-off, when accounting for the fortunes of the rich. Put more simply, when the news says “economy is doing great,” it means the rich are getting richer.
Second, these biases arise from the structural drivers of the American economy, in which the fruits of economic growth are predominantly captured by the rich. As the economy grows with stock market and corporate earnings, news about the economy becomes stunningly positive even though wealth stays concentrated at the top; “inequality” receives conspicuously little attention. In short, when the economy is treated as an undifferentiated whole, it fails to account for the disparities in the welfares of the people.At the same time, a news media that seeks to capture economic performance differently—by attending to the distribution of resources as well as aggregate growth—might help undo the very dynamics that helped the rich get richer.
Third, these biases do not appear to be driven by partisan bias in media content or journalistic preference for the interests of the rich. Democratic-leaning newspapers are no less likely to deliver class-biased economic news than are Republican-leaning newspapers. The tendency to privilege aggregate economic indicators—like growth—is widespread across media outlets, regardless of their ideological orientation or ownership structures.
These findings hold important implications for electoral accountability. The news today tells poorer voters that the economy is good only when the rich are doing better in relative terms. In this context, it is not puzzling that many poorer voters end up supporting incumbents who oversee rising concentrations of wealth at the very top. Indeed, how the news portrays the state of the economy matters: privileging growth over inequality in portraying the American economy has generated an informational environment that urges the poor to vote against their own economic experience.
At the same time, a news media that seeks to capture economic performance differently—by attending to the distribution of resources as well as aggregate growth—might help undo the very dynamics that helped the rich get richer. If the economy is deemed bad unless the poor are also doing well, more voters may actually hold their incumbents to account for their misfortune.
- Eun A Jo is a PhD student in the Government Department at Cornell University, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. She is interested in political rhetoric, emotions, and the domestic politics of international reconciliation, with a focus on East Asia. Currently, Eun A is working on two papers, exploring the drivers of South Korean responses to (1) Japanese apologies and (2) Chinese economic retaliation. She is the 2019-2020 Director’s Fellow of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell and the editor of The Asan Forum, a bimonthly journal of the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Prior to her study, Eun A worked as an advisor in international security at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations. She holds a BA from University College Utrecht and an MPP from Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
- Article details: American Political Science Review , First View , pp. 1 – 18, Whose News? Class-Biased Economic Reporting in the United Statesby Alan M. Jacobs, University of British Columbia, J. Scott Matthews, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Timothy Hicks, University College London and Eric Merkley, University of Toronto
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