REPORT: Broadcast And Cable News' One-Sided Social Security Debate

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE & CRAIG HARRINGTON

Throughout the first half of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news overwhelmingly discussed Social Security in an unbalanced and negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.

Majority Of Segments Framed Around Need To Reduce Costs

68 Percent Of Segments On Social Security Advocate Cutting Costs. Of the total 280 segments featuring substantial discussion of Social Security, 190 framed discussions around an apparent need to cut costs associated with the program. Only 38 total segments advocated strengthening the program or applying additional revenues. The remaining segments were framed around different issues, such as how immigration reform legislation and recent Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality would affect Social Security beneficiaries.

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MSNBC Led Cable Networks In Providing Balanced Coverage. Of all cable networks analyzed, MSNBC provided the most balanced coverage of the Social Security debate. Network guests and hosts dedicated a nearly even number of segments on Social Security to arguments in favor of both reducing costs or increasing outlays and revenue. Fox News provided the least balanced coverage. More than 100 segments on Fox framed the Social Security debate around the need to reduce costs while only eight advocated strengthening the program. Broadcast network outlets were generally balanced, but privileged the cost reduction argument.

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Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of evening (defined as 5 p.m. through 11 p.m.) programs on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and network broadcast news from January 1 through June 30.  We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: social security and entitlements.

The following programs were included in the data: World News with Diane Sawyer, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Evening News (CBS), Face the Nation, Nightly News with Brian Williams, Meet the Press with David Gregory, Fox News Sunday, The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, Piers Morgan Live, The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Politics Nation with Al Sharpton, All In with Chris Hayes, 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.

Media Matters only included segments that had substantial discussion of Social Security or general discussion of entitlement spending. 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 5 p.m.-11 p.m. window.

We define segments that are framed around the need to reduce the costs of Social Security as those in which the host or guests advocate cutting Social Security benefits, advocate changing cost of living adjustments to slow the growth of benefits, allude to Social Security's alleged effect on the national debt, or provide vague calls to reducing the cost or growth of the program.

We define segments that are framed around a need to strengthen Social Security as those in which the host or guests oppose proposed benefit cuts, advocate providing additional revenue to sustain the current program, or demand increased spending on program beneficiaries.

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