Reporting of the economy

by Andrew Gelman on January 29, 2012 · 18 comments

in Media

Jay Livingston considers how different news organizations are spinning the recent news of 2.8% economic growth.

The Houston Chronicle splits the difference with the headline, “Is 2.8% GDP growth good news? Texas Democrats say it is, Republicans say it’s a fluke.” And, unsurprisingly, Fox News described the 2.8% as “modest.”

Livingston was surprised, however, to see the New York Times and NPR giving a mixed report. Given these organizations’ liberal slant, wouldn’t we expect them to give an unambiguously positive spin on the data?

My response is that it’s still many months before the election! At this point, liberal-leaning news editors are still in the business of keeping expectations down. Wait till October if you want to see some serious spinning from both sides.

P.S. In response to some commenters: No, I don’t think that the New York Times is biased in the way that Fox News is biased; see here, for example, for my thoughts on the asymmetry of media bias. Still, I suspect that most NYT editors favor the Democrats over the Republicans.

{ 18 comments }

Sebastian January 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm

I actually think modest is pretty accurate in this case, even MSNBC calls it modest:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46162048
Many liberals like Yglesias, Klein, and Krugman think <3% isn't good enough for recovery.
(Also, I don't think NYT and NPR are in the business of propaganda in the same way that Fox is – nowhere close to it).

reflectionephemeral January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm

The NYT and NPR aren’t liberal. They’re centrist. Recall the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Dana Houle January 29, 2012 at 7:03 pm

What evidence is there that news editors are liberal, in particular the New York Times? Their Whitewater “reporting?” Kathryn Seelye’s “Al Gore lied” reporting in 2000? Their acquiescence to the Bush White House’s demand that they sit on the illegal wiretap story until after the 2004 election? And surely you’re familiar with the notion that the worst journalists are the liberals who are terrified of being called out as liberals, so they then bend over backwards to provide “balance” that typically favors conservatives.

I don’t happen to think the NYT is conservative, but I damn sure don’t think they’re liberal either, especially when Bill Keller was the publisher.

Dana Houle January 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm

And I should clarify that I’m questioning the notion that mainstream news media like the NYT has a liberal slant in how they present politics. I do think most of the news editors tend to be centrist to somewhat liberal in their personal politics, but I not only reject the assumption that they consciously slant their reporting and editorial decisions to help Democrats, I think they often subconsciously bow to conservatives to avoid charges of bias.

Also, presenting “Fox is putting their typical rightward slant on their presentation of news, so let’s look at the New York Times to see if they’re doing the same from the left” is a gross misunderstanding of the both Fox and the New York Times. Sebastian is right, the NYT and NPR aspire for objectivity while Fox is deliberate propaganda.

Adam January 29, 2012 at 9:25 pm

This post — particularly the expectation that the NYT will outright slant its front-page coverage to fit liberal spin — only makes sense if you 1) ignore 40 years of mass communication literature and consider Tim Groseclose to be the only current scholar of the news media, and 2) miss the obvious sarcasm in Livingston’s post.

frankcross January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm

The editors of the NYT are wildly liberal, ever read the unsigned editorials?
I think the regular journalists are pretty good at playing it straight, but they are also liberals and occasionally let biases interfere. The NYT ombudsman conceded a bias on a few discrete issues.

Trey January 29, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Of potential interest: “New Media and the Polarization of American
Political Discourse”
[PDF] by Baum and Groeling (Kennedy School).

They compare which political stories were selected by AP & Reuters as “top stories” and compare to FoxNews, DailyKos, and FreeRepublic. They control for political and economic environment as well as whether stories are selected to rebut or not. Not quite the same sample space as NYT & NPR, though they do find that the AP has a slight “liberal” skew while Reuters does not. The most partisan of all outlets is DailyKos, if I remember correctly.

Not my views, just my memory of reading it.

Dana Houle January 30, 2012 at 12:47 am

You’ve got to be kidding me. As a former contributing editor at Daily Kos, it’s just astonishing that someone would compare DKos, an admitted partisan site, to Fox, a major broadcasting company that purports to be reporting “news.”

BTW, I’d love to see a comparison of accuracy between those sites. DKos would blow Fox away. Proving that reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Trey January 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Well, luckily that’s why they have a detailed methods section and post replication data rather than using their own experience and personal involvement with one of the cases to draw their conclusions.

matt w January 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

All the methods in the world aren’t going to turn Daily Kos into a cable news channel. And it’s odd that they chose to draw conclusions about talk radio without actually having studied talk radio.

will January 30, 2012 at 1:15 am

liberals for whatever reason have been much less willing to spin the economy favorably than conservatives were during Bush’s first term. Maybe they’ll finally go into spin mode now that it’s a election year, I did see a Paul Krugman column with the phrase “cautiously optimistic”.

Dana Houle January 30, 2012 at 9:38 am

“I don’t think that the New York Times is biased in the way that Fox News is biased;”

In what way _do_ you think they’re “biased?” Can you provide examples of this bias?

Andrew Gelman January 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Dana:

I’ll leave it for others to demonstrate bias in Fox News. But, for now, you could try turning on the TV and taking a look. The War on Christmas is over but I’m sure some new outrage is happening right now, as we type.

Dana Houle January 30, 2012 at 11:53 am

[Responded in wrong place]

Please reread my question. I don’t need to know that Fox is biased; I’ve more than acknowledged that elsewhere in the thread. I’m asking how the NYT supposedly exhibits a liberal bias, and why that supposed bias is worthy of being mentioned as if it’s roughly equivalent to the propaganda on Fox.

Dana Houle January 30, 2012 at 11:50 am

Please read my question again. I didn’t ask you about Fox.

Bob Loblaw January 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I would assume your revised statement goes for NPR as well as the NYT? Planet Money has been continuously singing doom and gloom about the economy for the past 4 years, so at least that program doesn’t seem terribly biased to me.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, on the other hand, clearly has a liberal bias. Giving away answering machine messages, for free? Socialism!

Tyson January 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I’m with most of the other posters here, the NY Times and NPR are not comparable to Fox News. Just because NY Times news editors favor Democrats over Republicans does not mean they will slant their reporting to help Obama win elections, even subconsciously. The right wing politicians and news orgs are so loud and vocal about liberal bias that that I’m sure NYT news editors carefully monitor themselves for bias. 2.8% growth is indeed modest, especially in a post-recession period. I think they will report growth in the 2.8% range as modest even in October (that’s a prediction we might be able to check in 9 monts). I think a more likely candidate for liberal bias is MSNBC, who called 2.8% a “healthy pace” http://bottomline.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/01/27/10249993-us-economy-ended-2011-at-a-healthy-pace but even MSNBC also called it “modest” and “not healthy yet but healing” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46162567/ns/local_news-clarksburg_wv/t/economy-grew-modest-pct-q-best/ . I don’t think there is anything equivalent to the slant from Fox News. (The WSJ editorial is very biased too but their reporting was pretty fair last I checked.) You should check out their “fact check” of Obama’s SOTU – it’s almost 100% spin, not fact check. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/01/24/fact-check-obamas-2012-state-union/

reflectionephemeral January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm

“Still, I suspect that most NYT editors favor the Democrats over the Republicans.”

I submit that that isn’t a particularly relevant or interesting metric.

What we want to know is,is there a bias in the manner in which the news is reported.

As most on this thread have been arguing, the NYT & NPR (and CNN, etc.) don’t have a liberal bias; they have a “centrist” bias.

For example, on the day they formally announced their candidacies, Jon Huntsman got much more coverage than Herman Cain. Cain was beating Huntsman by about 16 percent, and Huntsman never got above about 1% anywhere; but he seemed sane and competent, so the media highlighted him as if he had a chance. There’s also the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and the other points Dana Houle has listed. But we can all agree that there is no “liberal media” that operates as a wing of the Democratic Party in the way that Fox is a conscious adjunct of the GOP.

The study mentioned in the post you linked in your update, about highlighting of certain issues, is an interesting first cut, though there’s obviously a little more to be learned in there– e.g., are there other issues that are highlighted differently, do the issues gain coverage because the out party is making noise about them.

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