Print Media's Dependence On Raw Social Security Numbers

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE

Throughout the first half of 2013, coverage on the finances of Social Security in the three major print outlets relied on reporting figures in raw numbers devoid of relevant context, such as previous years' figures, that could provide a more accurate picture of the program.

Print Media Rely On Raw Numbers To Report On Social Security

59 Percent Of Social Security Finance Figures Reported As Raw Numbers Without Important Context. Three major print outlets -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- were more likely to report figures on the revenue, spending, and funding gap for Social Security as raw numbers rather than figures with relevant context or in percentage terms. Only 11 percent of mentions of figures gave relevant context -- such as previous years' or months' figures. Thirty-one percent of figures were presented as a percentage term relative to GDP, the size of the federal budget, or total taxable payrolls.

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Deficiency In Reporting Context Stretched Across All Three Outlets. Of the three major print outlets analyzed, The Wall Street Journal showed the heaviest reliance on raw numbers devoid of context, accounting for about 69 percent of its mentions of Social Security finance figures. The Washington Post showed the least reliance on raw numbers -- 50 percent of all figures reported -- and the greatest reliance on numbers with relevant context. The New York Times had the most mentions of Social Security figures presented in percentage terms.

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Methodology

Media Matters conducted Nexis and Factiva (for The Wall Street Journal) searches for print articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post between January 1, 2013, and June 30, 2013, using the search term, "Social Security."

We only coded figures that referred to the overall funding of Social Security. For example, we did not include figures on benefits for individual recipients.

We only coded figures that related to the United States Social Security program.

We defined figures that are represented as "raw numbers" as those that are expressed in nominal dollar terms devoid of context (such as previous years' or months' figures, or whether the figure is larger or smaller than expected).

We defined figures that are represented as "raw numbers with context" as those that are expressed in nominal dollar terms with relevant context (such as previous years' or months' figures, or whether the figure is larger or smaller than expected).

We defined figures that are represented as "percentage terms" as those that are expressed in terms of the relevant percentage. For example, Social Security spending, revenue, or funding gap expressed as a percentage of GDP, total federal budget, or total taxable payrolls.

Craig Harrington contributed to this report.

Posted In
Economy, Social Security
Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times
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