Whose News? How Economic News Responds to the Distribution of Gains and Losses

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.3.02 (Tower One)
Timothy Hicks, N/A, United Kingdom
Alan Jacobs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Scott Matthews, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's, NF, Canada
Eric Merkley, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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. What we know much less about is how the nature of economic news responds to different components of the economy -- and, specifically _whose_ economic welfare drives economic news. 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. 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 then undertake time-series analysis to examine how well the tone of economic news tracks annual income gains and losses for the bottom quintile vs. the middle quintile vs. the top 5 percent of households by income. We further analyze the sensitivity of economic reporting to changes in economic fundamentals with differing distributional implications (and for which multiple observations per year are available): unemployment, average wages, inflation, corporate earnings, interest rates, and real per capita GDP growth. 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.