STUDY: Networks Focus Less On Poverty As Coverage Of Inequality Drops

PBS Sets Itself Apart From Broadcast Outlets On Inequality And Poverty, Fox News Remains Major Source Of Misleading Coverage

In the second quarter of 2016, prime-time and evening weekday news programs on the largest broadcast and cable outlets dedicated significantly less time to economic inequality and poverty than they had in the first quarter of the year. The weekday drop-off was led by CNN and MSNBC, which dramatically reduced their programming on inequality. PBS remained the gold standard among broadcast outlets in terms of covering inequality and poverty, while Fox News remained a prevalent source of misinformation on the same topics.

Huge Drop In Segments Dedicated To Inequality And Poverty

Weekday And Sunday Programs Dim Their Spotlight On Inequality And Poverty. Major broadcast and cable news programs discussed policies and other topics relating to economic inequality less frequently during the second quarter of 2016 than during the first quarter of the year, according to a Media Matters analysis. Weekday broadcast and cable coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC dropped nearly 40 percent from 109 total segments in the first quarter to just 67 segments during the second quarter. Among qualifying weekday programming, only two networks -- ABC and CBS -- increased their focus on inequality from the first quarter.

Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC exhibited a less severe decrease of roughly 19 percent, down from 27 total segments in the first quarter to 22 in the second. Among qualifying Sunday programming, only two networks -- CBS and Fox Broadcasting -- increased their focus from the first quarter. Yet, both stations increased coverage by only one additional segment. [Media Matters, 8/1/16, 5/25/16]

Despite Drop In Total Coverage, Proportion Of Segments Discussing Poverty Increased. Despite significant decreases in total coverage of inequality, the proportion of weekday and Sunday segments on inequality that also mentioned issues of poverty increased over the last quarter. Weekday programming specifically mentioned poverty in over 62 percent of segments focused on economic inequality in the second quarter, up from 55 percent in the prior period. Sunday programming specifically mentioned poverty in roughly 46 percent of similar segments, up from 33 percent in the prior period:

Weekday News Still More Likely To Discuss Inequality, Poverty Than Sunday Shows. As seen in the prior recording period, weekday broadcast and cable news programming were more likely to discuss inequality and poverty than the Sunday political talk shows in segments on the economy.

PBS Continues High Standard While Fox News Remains A Problematic Voice In Inequality Coverage

PBS Led All Competitors In Covering Economic Inequality, Poverty. PBS NewsHour maintained its first-quarter lead over all other broadcast evening news programs in terms of covering both economic inequality and poverty in the second quarter. PBS dedicated three times as much coverage to economic inequality as its next closest broadcast competitor: CBS’ Evening News. PBS aired six times more programming focused on economic inequality than CNN -- despite the cable giant having three hours of qualifying program every day to PBS’ one hour.** [Media Matters, 5/25/16]

Fox News Remained The Loudest Voice In The Room. Fox News dedicated 24 segments to economic inequality during the survey period, twice as many segments as MSNBC and eight times more than CNN. MSNBC’s 12 segments during the second quarter represented a significant decrease from 32 in the first quarter. Meanwhile, after featuring a discussion of economic inequality in 17 segments during the first quarter, CNN’s coverage of the topic virtually disappeared, with just three qualifying segments during the second:

Fox Continued Promoting So-Called Solutions That Would Actually Make Inequality And Poverty Worse. Fox News continued dedicating considerable time to promoting so-called policy solutions to lingering economic inequality and systemic poverty that research suggests would make those problems worse:

  • In 11 segments, the same number as registered during the prior quarter, Fox hosts and guests called for so-called “pro-growth” tax and regulatory policies allegedly aimed at boosting economic growth and job creation to lift working Americans out of poverty. But research suggests that economic growth alone is not sufficient mechanisms to alleviate poverty. Recent research from the Brookings Institution indicates “a weak relationship” between increased growth and increased economic security. Meanwhile, independent analyses from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty suggests that if economic growth alone could reduce poverty, the predicted poverty rate would have fallen to 0 percent between 1988 and 1994. [Institute for Research on Poverty, Focus, Spring-Summer 2007; Economic Policy Institute, 1/15/14; Brookings Institution, 1/29/16]
  • In nine segments, Fox hosts and guests called for further reductions of the annual federal budget deficit and for reduction of the national debt. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the spending cuts necessary to achieve balanced budgets would be disastrous for vital programs including food assistance, cash welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- all of which play a crucial role in reducing poverty in the United States. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 3/9/16, 3/28/16]
  • Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was a featured guests during four segments focused on inequality and poverty. A recent Moody’s Analytics analysis of Trump’s tax and economic policies indicates that enacting his proposals would drive the American economy into a deep and prolonged recession resulting in higher unemployment, decreased job creation, and increased economic inequality. According to a 2010 analysis of the Great Recession (2007-2009) from the Brookings Institution, the economic contraction greatly “exacerbated” poverty rates around the country; the report correctly predicted that the economic contraction would continue driving millions of Americans into poverty “by the middle of this decade.” [Brookings Institution, October 2010; Moody’s Analytics, 6/17/16]
  • Fox News hosts and guests never mentioned the impact raising the minimum wage at the local, state, or federal level could have on alleviating poverty and economic insecurity despite considerable evidence that low wages force millions of American workers to rely on anti-poverty assistance programs. According to a recent joint report by Oxfam America and EPI, a full-time worker earning a minimum wage of $12 per hour could sustain an average family of four above the poverty line, and a nationwide wage threshold at that level would reduce federal spending on anti-poverty programs by roughly $17 billion annually. [Oxfam America/ Economic Policy Institute, June 2016]

Bernie Sanders Remained The Driving Force In Sunday Show Coverage Of Inequality And Poverty. In line with a trend established during the first quarter of the year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who lost the Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton, was the driving force in coverage of economic inequality and poverty on the five major Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC. Sanders was featured in 15 of the 22 segments focused on economic inequality and in eight of the 10 segments focused on poverty. President Barack Obama and Clinton were responsible for the remaining mentions of poverty. [Media Matters, 5/25/16]

Women’s Perspectives Less Prevalent; Economists' Opinions On Inequality Break Through

Economists Accounted For 10 Percent Of Weekday Guests During Segments On Inequality And Poverty. Political and media figures continued to represent the vast majority of guests during discussions of economic inequality and poverty during qualifying weekday programming. Economists accounted for six of the 60 guests featured during weekday broadcast and cable coverage of inequality -- a significant increase from the prior quarter, when they accounted for just two of 136 guests. Political guests (23) and journalists/media guests (23) comprised the bulk of the remaining weekday guests. As had been the case during the first quarter of the year, economists were not among the 26 guests featured during Sunday segments focused on inequality and poverty. The increased representation of economists during weekday programming from the first to the second quarter of the year reflects broader trends in guest composition. [Media Matters, 5/25/16, 8/1/16]

Women’s Representation Falls From Already Low Baseline. In the first quarter of the year, women accounted for just 33 percent of total weekday and Sunday guests during segments on economic inequality and poverty. In the second quarter, the percentage of guests who were women fell just below 20 percent. Women accounted for just 12 of 60 guests during qualifying weekday segments, and just five of 26 guests during qualifying Sunday segments. The stark lack of representation comes despite the fact that Equal Pay Day -- an annual day of action marking how far into the year an average woman has to work to earn as much as her male counterparts -- fell on April 12 this year, within the survey period for the second quarter. According to an April 2016 report by Congress’ Joint Economic Committee (JEC), women are acutely affected by poverty and more likely than men to struggle with poverty “at every age” as a result of pay disparities over the course of their careers. [Media Matters, 4/12/16; U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, April 2016]

The last quarterly report of inequality and poverty coverage is available here: first quarter, 2016.


** PBS dedicates more daily airtime to live news than its broadcast competitors do, and its news programming is commercial-free. This increased programming range allows the PBS NewsHour to feature more significant and in-depth discussions of the economy than ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News can.

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of network broadcast news and cable prime-time (defined as 8 p.m. through 11 p.m.) weekday programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from April 1 through June 30, 2016. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: econom! or jobs or growth or debt or deficit or minimum wage or inequality or taxes or poverty or low income or low-income or obamacare or aca or affordable care act or health care.

The following programs were included in the data: World News Tonight, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS Evening News, Face the Nation, NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press, PBS NewsHour, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Tonight, The O'Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, Hannity, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. For shows that air reruns, only the first airing was included in data retrieval. Unlike Fox News and MSNBC, CNN did not air distinct news programming during the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot during the survey period, opting instead for a second hour of Anderson Cooper 360.

We defined segments that discuss economic inequality as those that mention the socioeconomic disparity between high- and low-income individuals.

We defined segments that call for deficit reduction as a priority as those where either the host or guest mentions deficit and debt reduction as pressing needs.

We defined segments that call for economic growth as a priority as those where either the host or guest mentions economic growth and job creation as pressing needs.

We defined segments that identify tax increases as having a negative impact on the economy as those where either the host or guest mentions that tax increases are holding back job creation or economic growth as well as those where either the host or guest advocates tax cuts to spur job creation or economic growth. In some instances, a host or guest conflates general or specific government regulations with tax increases.

We defined segments that promoted myths about the economic effects of the Affordable Care Act as those where either the host or guest suggests that the Affordable Care Act is holding back job growth, increasing part-time work, or restricting business activity, as well as those where either the host or guest proposes repealing the Affordable Care Act as a means of stimulating the economy.

We defined segments that promoted myths about the economic effects of increasing the minimum wage as those where either the host or guest alleges that a minimum wage increase would lead to job losses, an increase in part-time work, or restricted business activity.