REPORT : TV News Coverage Of Budget Negotiations Excludes Economists

In recent weeks, media outlets have focused heavily on current budget negotiations regarding automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect on January 1, 2013 if an alternative agreement is not reached. But major television news outlets are inadequately reporting on year-end budget negotiations, rarely hosting economists and favoring inflammatory rhetoric about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” according to a Media Matters analysis. Furthermore, most television segments have completely ignored the possible economic effects of potential tax increases and spending cuts.

Economists Largely Absent In Discussions Across All Media Outlets

Economists Made Up About 4.4 Percent Of All Guest Appearances. Of the 503 guest appearances during segments identified as primarily about budget negotiations, only 22 -- about 4.4 percent -- were made by economists. The lack of economist representation was similar across networks. Economists accounted for 6.3 percent of guest appearances on CNN, 3.1 percent on Fox News, and 7.3 percent on MSNBC. No economists appeared on ABC, CBS, and NBC during the period analyzed.


Journalists Made Up Largest Share Of Guest Appearances In Budget Negotiations Segments. Economists accounted for only 4 percent of all guests in budget negotiations segments. Journalists made up 57 percent, the largest share of guests in segments discussing budget negotiations, with political figures making up the second largest share. Remaining guests, such as business executives, did not meet any of the three identified classifications.


“Fiscal Cliff” Frame Prevalent In Discussions

An Overwhelming Majority Of Segments Used “Fiscal Cliff” To Frame Discussions. Of 337 total segments, 287 used the phrase “fiscal cliff” when discussing budget negotiations, even though it may not accurately describe the consequences of failure to negotiate a budget before January 1. Segments in which the term was identified as the “so-called fiscal cliff” were not included. The remaining segments either provided an alternative frame -- such as “fiscal slope” or an explanation that not all effects happen immediately -- or used more neutral language when discussing budget negotiations.

MSNBC Led All Networks In Providing Alternate Framing Of Budget Negotiations. Of the networks that offered alternative frames, MSNBC outperformed all other outlets. MSNBC aired 22 segments -- 32.4 percent of its coverage on budget negotiations -- that presented alternate framing to the phrase “fiscal cliff.” Fox News, CNN, and all network news broadcasts provided little to no explanation that “fiscal cliff” may be a misleading term.


Effects Of Tax Hikes Discussed More Than Effects Of Spending Cuts

Potential Negative Effects Of Tax Hikes Received More Attention Than Potential Negative Effects Of Spending Cuts. Of all segments, 130 discussed the negative effects of tax increases, compared to only 50 that mentioned effects of spending cuts. Forty-two total segments mentioned only the effects of increasing taxes on the wealthy, with the bulk of these segments -- 23 segments -- being on Fox News. The effect of taxes on the wealthy outperforms other issues when discussed in isolation -- 24 segments discussed only the effects of general tax increases, while only 13 total segments mentioned the effects of spending cuts in isolation.


Macroeconomic Effects Largely Absent From Coverage

Majority Of Segments Did Not Discuss Macroeconomic Effects Of Budget Negotiations. A large share -- 62 percent -- of segments did not discuss the macroeconomic impacts of either component of budget negotiations. While some segments discussed specific microeconomic impacts (such as increased tax burden on individuals), most were focused on non-economic issues, such as political leverage in negotiations and the Grover Norquist tax pledge.



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, and network broadcast news from November 7 (the first day after the election) through November 28 to cover the three weeks following Election Day.  We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: debt, deficit, sequestration, or fiscal. When transcripts were incomplete, we reviewed video.

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, 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.

Media Matters only included segments that had substantial discussion of budget negotiations when collecting data. 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 4pm-11pm 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 or not 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 uses the “fiscal cliff” frame was defined as any segment where any guest or the host specifically uses the “fiscal cliff” terminology or close variants that express immediate negative economic impacts.

We defined segments that pushed back on the “fiscal cliff” frame as those in which any guests or the host challenges against the “fiscal cliff” terminology (or close variants that express the same fundamental idea), or uses alternative terms such as “fiscal curve” or “fiscal slope.”

We only classified segments that discussed the negative impacts of tax increases and spending cuts on the macroeconomy. This necessarily excluded segments that discussed microeconomic impacts (such as tax increases affecting individuals' budgets).

Media Matters intern Brian Rabitz contributed to this report.

*Updated for clarity.