Spin and the Economy

by Dan Hopkins on September 6, 2010 · 5 comments

in Blogs

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.


paul g. September 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Daniel sorry to be self-promoting but look at Kinder, Adams, Gronke from the oldie goldie 1980s (I think 1986). We posited that a lot of learning occurred through interpersonal experiences (not necessarily the media). Glad to see new work on this.

Thomas B. Edsall September 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

The debate over the role of the economy (political scientists) versus campaign strategies and candidate personalities (news reporters and columnists) is very interesting. Is it possible to take it a step further to describe the set of forces that might lead to voters becoming more liberal or more conservative in their attitudes toward economic policy and government intervention. While an agnostic out of ignornance myself, there are serious thinkers who argue that the growing anti-spending, anti-government views of the public are pushing the country in exactly the wrong direction, and, of course, others who praise the trends in the electorate. What circumstances push voters in either direction? Does liberalism depend on a growing economy? etc.
Tom Edsall

James Fowler September 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm

This is brilliant Dan! Thanks for posting….

Erik September 6, 2010 at 7:43 pm

You might want to check out Diana Mutz’s “Impersonal Influence:How Perceptions of Mass Collectives Affect Political Attitudes” for a more nuanced and complex social-psychological take on the relationship between media and economic perceptions.

Jason September 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Cool analysis, and I think it makes sense on this issue because of journalistic norms. Repoters need an event to hang a story on, and a significant change in economic indicators would be such an event. Smaller changes may go largely unreported and in any event, the unemployed and their friends will know first. I would think that on this issue, the financial success of self and social network would be crucial to perceptions.

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