In a blog post here yesterday, Andrew pointed out that for all of our collective insistence that the economy shapes voter decision-making, political scientists have more to learn about where economic perceptions come from. In a nation of more than 300 million residents, where economic conditions vary by region, it seems plausible that economic perceptions are shaped by what is reported in the news media. But does that mean that the economy is susceptible to media spin?
My ongoing work suggests that it is not. Or perhaps I should say “my computer’s ongoing work,” since this research makes use of computational tools to analyze more newspaper articles than I could ever read. After extracting all of the stories in the New York Times or the Washington Post that mentioned economic keywords from around 1980 until around 2006—that’s about 150,000 articles in all—I created an index of economic tone. The index adds up the monthly share of nine word stems that tend to track economic performance, word stems like “inflat” and “unemploy.” Separately, I used the Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes to measure Americans’ perceptions of the national economy over the last year. In both cases, the measures are of economic concern, so we should see higher values when journalists’ articles are negative in tone or when Americans are especially worried about the economy.
American public opinion typically looks stable and rational when viewed over time, and these results are no exception. Follow the blue line: Americans’ concern about the economy reliably grows during recessions and declines during expansions. But the key finding is in the relationship between the various trends. The tone of coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times does not appear to systematically lead Americans’ economic perceptions, a point that formal statistical tests reinforce. If anything, the relationship is the reverse, with Americans’ economic attitudes shifting before we see similar shifts in print. These are only two newspapers, to be sure, but they are two prominent national newspapers. And they are commonly perceived (or derided) as influential. When viewed over the long-term, Americans appear to be responding to actual economic conditions—and not to the tone of these national newspapers.