REPORT: Economic Growth Absent From Television Coverage Of Debt Ceiling Debate

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE & ALAN PYKE

In recent weeks, media outlets have focused heavily on negotiations regarding raising the debt ceiling. But television news has failed to highlight the pressing need for stronger economic growth. Furthermore, discussions about the debt ceiling often ignore facts about deficits, instead pivoting the focus to entitlements as a driver of deficits.

Economic Growth Rarely Discussed

Economic Growth Discussed In Only 12 Percent Of All Segments. Of the 273 total segments analyzed, only 33 mentioned the need to encourage economic growth. All networks included in the analysis are equally deficient in mentioning this point.

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Negative Effects Of Failing To Raise Debt Ceiling Not Prominent. Only 100 segments out of 273 mentioned the negative economic effects of failing to raise - or threat of failing to raise - the debt ceiling. MSNBC most frequently mentioned negative effects in 41 of 68 segments (60 percent), while CNN mentioned them in 13 of 23 segments (57 percent). The remaining networks lagged far behind, with CNBC, Fox Business, and Fox News mentioning macroeconomic consequences in 26, 23, and 25 percent of segments, respectively.

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Discussions Rely Heavily On Input From Journalists And Political Guests

Journalists Made Up Largest Share Of Guest Appearances. Of the 429 guests appearing in segments discussing the debt ceiling, 192 were identified as journalists. Political guests made up the second largest share at 135, with economists and other guests - those not identified as one of the three main classifications - accounting for the rest of guests.

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Deficit Facts Largely Ignored In Coverage

Real Drivers Of Deficits Absent From Debate. Of the 273 total segments analyzed, only three mentioned that deficits as a percentage of GDP have been falling. Furthermore, segments discussing the debt ceiling failed to mention what economists identify as the strongest drivers of recent deficits, namely rising healthcare costs and the economic downturn. Only four segments mentioned either of these facts. Instead, segments relied more heavily on using a "size of government" narrative or pointing to entitlement spending as a reason to reduce deficits and overall debt.

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Entitlement Spending Overshadows Other Factors In Discussions

Entitlement Reform And Cuts Largest Focus In Debt Ceiling Debate. In segments discussing the debt ceiling, the need for entitlement reform or cuts was noted as the most prominent factor. Of the 273 total segments analyzed, 55 discussed entitlements. Fox News, CNBC, and Fox Business accounted for the most discussion on entitlement spending, with 15, 13, and 19 segments respectively.

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Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis and Snapstream search of transcripts of evening (defined as 4 p.m. through 11 p.m.) programs on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and Fox Business from January 2 (the day after the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act) through January 22. We identified and reviewed all segments that included substantial discussion of the debt ceiling. When transcripts were incomplete, we reviewed video.

The following programs were included in the data: Money with Melissa Francis, The Willis Report, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Cavuto, Fast Money, Mad Money, The Kudlow Report, The Situation Room, Erin Burnett Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, Piers Morgan, Your World with Neil Cavuto, The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, The Fox Report with Shepard Smith, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Martin Bashir, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Politics Nation with Al Sharpton, The Ed Show, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. For shows that air re-runs (such as Anderson Cooper 360 and Hardball with Chris Matthews), only the first airing was included in data retrieval.

When collecting data, Media Matters only included segments that had substantial discussion of the debt ceiling. We did not include teasers or clips of news events, and re-broadcasts of news packages that were already counted on their initial broadcast in the 4p.m. through 11p.m. window.

We counted all guests that appeared in relevant segments, using bios, profiles, resumes, and news stories available online to determine as best we could each guest's educational background and professional experience.

We defined an economist as someone who either holds an advanced degree in economics or has served as an economics professor at the college or university level. In cases where it was unclear whether the guest held an advanced degree, they were classified in the next most descriptive cohort.

Media Matters defined a political guest as any former or current elected government official or political appointee, any political strategist, or any former or current political party official (such as former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele).

We defined a journalist as a guest whose main profession is associated with a media outlet, such as contributors, correspondents, and columnists.

For economists who also fell under the definition of a political guest (such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich) or journalist, Media Matters coded those guests only as economists.

A segment that discussed the negative effects of failing to raise the debt ceiling was defined as one that directly explains the macroeconomic effects, such as a decline in output.

We defined segments that mention economic growth as those that mention the need to increase employment, output, or generally improve economic conditions.

We defined segments that use a "size of government" narrative as those in which a guest or host mentions the size and scope of government as an argument for deficit reduction.

Segments were coded as discussing entitlements only when they were used to explain deficits or as an argument to cut spending.

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