STUDY: Cable And Broadcast News Try To Cover The Economy Without Economists

Economists Made Up 1 Percent Of Guests In The First Quarter Of 2016, While Shows Focused On Campaigns, Inequality

››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON & ALEX MORASH

Expertise from economists was almost completely absent from television news coverage of the economy in the first quarter of 2016, which focused largely on the tax and economic policy platforms of this year’s presidential candidates. Coverage of economic inequality spiked during the period -- tying an all-time high -- driven in part by messaging from candidates on both sides of the aisle, but gender diversity in guests during economic news segments remained low.

Five Presidential Candidates Left An Imprint On TV Economic News

Presidential Candidates Shaped Economic News Coverage In The First Quarter Of 2016. Over the first three months of the year, five presidential candidates still in the race at the end of March left an indelible imprint on the tone and tenor of prime-time broadcast and cable evening economic news coverage. The candidates combined to account for 53 of the 270 total guest appearances during qualifying economic segments, led by Republican front-runner Donald Trump (22):

Candidates Provided A Majority Of Economic Commentary On Sundays. Over the first three months of the year, the same five candidates accounted for a majority of the total guest appearances discussing economic issues on the five major Sunday political talk shows. The candidates accounted for 48 of the 80 total guest appearances during qualifying segments, led by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (20):

Trump And Cruz Were Buoyed By Regular Airtime On Fox News. The overwhelming majority of qualifying appearances by Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz came during interviews and guest appearances on Fox News Channel. The network featured 18 appearances by Trump and 15 appearances by Cruz during interviews or guest spots with a significant focus on economic news or policy; the remaining appearances were all carried by CNN. Previous Media Matters research has demonstrated the remarkable extent to which Trump, Cruz, and the rest of the Republican field have used Fox News as a reliable source of airtime and exposure throughout the presidential primary season. [Media Matters, 4/7/16]

Major Trends In Economic News Coverage

PBS Trounced Its Broadcast Competition On The Economy. The three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- dedicated nearly as many segments to the economy during the first quarter of 2016 as they did in the last six months of last year. Each network still lagged far behind PBS, which featured more than twice as many substantive economic news segments as its next closest broadcast competitor.** [Media Matters, 1/27/16]

Fox News Outpaced Other Cable Networks In Focusing On The Economy. From January through March, Fox News aired 94 segments highlighting economic news and policy during prime-time programming, compared to just 61 from MSNBC and 33 from CNN. This fits a trend established during the second half of 2015, when Fox overtook MSNBC in terms of relative prime-time economic news coverage. CNN remained a distant third among the cable networks and actually managed to air fewer substantive economic news segments than PBS despite having more available programming hours for news:

ABC’s This Week Lagged Behind Other Sunday Shows On The Economy. In the first quarter of 2016, the main Sunday political talk shows on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox Broadcasting, and NBC combined to feature substantive discussions of economic news and policy in 65 segments. CBS’ Face the Nation and CNN’s State of the Union tied for the most segments -- with 16 apiece -- while ABC’s This Week lagged behind -- with just nine qualifying segments:

Coverage Of Economic Inequality Spiked, Tying Previous All-Time High

Economic Inequality Discussed In Nearly Four In 10 Prime-Time And Evening News Segments. Of the 288 combined economic news segments featured during prime-time and evening programming on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC in the first quarter of 2016, 109 -- or 38 percent -- directly addressed policies or topics relating to economic inequality and poverty. Despite encompassing just three months of programming, this total represents a significant increase in coverage from the prior six-month reporting period. The relative proportion of segments dedicated to economic inequality matches an all-time high for cable and broadcast news established in the first half of 2015. [Media Matters, 8/31/15; 1/27/16]

Sunday Shows Were Slightly More Likely To Discuss Inequality. Of the 65 combined economic news segments featured on the five major Sunday political talk shows during the first quarter of 2016, 27 -- 42 percent -- directly addressed economic inequality:

MSNBC And Fox Tied For Most Coverage Of Inequality, PBS Was Miles Ahead Of Competition. MSNBC and Fox News each aired 32 segments during prime-time weekday programming containing significant discussions of economic inequality or poverty in the first quarter of 2016 -- nearly twice as many segments as CNN (17). Meanwhile, PBS dedicated over three times more segments to these topics than ABC, CBS, and NBC combined during evening news programming:

Fox News Sunday Was Almost Left Out Of The Conversation. Despite Fox News’ attention to inequality and poverty in the first quarter of the year -- which was often critical and included segments disparaging low-income Americans, blaming President Obama for poverty, and questioning the value of alleviating said inequality -- the network’s broadcast partner almost ignored the conversation entirely. Fox Broadcasting’s Fox News Sunday registered just one significant discussion of economic inequality in the first three months of the year, while no other Sunday show featured fewer than five qualifying discussions:

Fox News Wanted It Both Ways On Taxes, Deficit Reduction, Economic Growth

Fox News Continued To Lead Calls For Job Creation, Economic Growth. Spurred by numerous appearances by Republican presidential candidates and their surrogates, Fox News led all outlets in segments featuring calls for policies purportedly focused on economic growth and job creation in the first quarter of 2016. Fox established itself as the leading advocate of economic growth in the second half of 2015. [Media Matters, 1/27/16]

Fox Continued Its Solitary Advocacy Of Deficit Reduction. In accordance with established trends, Fox News remained the only outlet to prominently feature repeated calls to cut government spending for the purpose of reducing annual federal budget deficits and the long-term national debt.[Media Matters, 8/31/151/21/15]

Fox’s Hannity Ignored His Own Calls For Deficit Reduction, Repeatedly Pushed For Tax Cuts. In line with previously established trends, Fox News host Sean Hannity's 10 p.m. program Hannity was the network’s main source of calls for policies aimed at reducing the debt and deficit. Hannity featured 14 of Fox’s 27 total calls for debt and deficit reduction in the first half of the year, but it also featured 21 of the network’s 39 segments promoting the supposed economic benefits of tax cuts.

Economic Growth And Job Creation Dominated Sunday Programming. The five major Sunday political talk shows combined to feature 19 total segments discussing policies intended to spur job creation and economic growth, compared to just three combined segments discussing the need for debt and deficit reduction:

Coverage Of The Minimum Wage Was Overwhelmingly Positive

Opposition To The Minimum Wage Folded On Evening And Prime-Time News. According to previous Media Matters research, opposition to the minimum wage based on the myth that it hurts businesses and destroys jobs has been on the decline for more than two years. In the first quarter of 2016, anti-minimum-wage myths completely disappeared from both broadcast evening and cable prime-time economic news. MSNBC aired 11 of the 17 total evening broadcast and prime-time cable news segments covering the potential economic benefits of increasing the minimum wage. Fox News remains a prominent source of minimum wage misinformation outside of prime-time, but attacks on living wage standards were not featured during any qualifying prime-time segments in the first three months of the year. [Media Matters, 1/27/16; 4/8/16; 4/14/16]

Fox News Stepped Up Opposition To Obamacare, Other Networks Featured Calls To Expand Health Care Reform

Led By Presidential Candidates, Fox Returned To Obamacare Myths. Fox News was the source of 20 of the 23 total evening broadcast and prime-time cable discussions that promoted myths about the economic effects of the Affordable Care Act. Republican presidential candidates and their surrogates featured prominently among those guests who regularly attacked the health care reform law as being bad for business development and job creation and falsely claimed that repealing the law would boost the economy.

MSNBC Featured Most Discussions Of Progressive Plans To Preserve, Expand Health Care Reform. Cable prime-time programming gave considerable attention to progressive initiatives to expand the Affordable Care Act during the survey period, boosted by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. MSNBC aired nearly half (12 of 25) of the total evening broadcast and prime-time cable segments featuring calls to preserve and expand health care reforms.

Economists Virtually Disappeared From Economic News Coverage

Economists Accounted For Just 1 Percent Of Cable News Guests. Of the 245 guests who appeared during prime-time cable news discussions of economic news and policy, just 3 -- or just more than 1 percent -- were economists. The number is by far the lowest on record, and it represents a consequential drop from the second half of last year, when economists appeared 22 times and accounted for 6.4 percent of guests. [Media Matters, 1/27/16]

Former Obama Adviser Austan Goolsbee Was The Only Economist Featured During Discussions Of The Economy. The only economist to appear during a qualifying economic news segment in the first quarter of 2016 was Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Goolsbee appeared twice on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor and once on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Several economists, including Goolsbee, appeared during prime-time cable news segments that did not qualify as containing significant discussions of economic news and policy.

Political Guests Accounted For Nearly Six In 10 Weekday Guests. The proportional representation of political guests reached an all-time high in the first quarter of the year, as outlets played host to elected and former politicians, political appointees, strategists, and the remaining Democratic and Republican presidential candidates and their surrogates.

Economists Were Completely Ignored On Sunday Shows. The five major Sunday political talk shows performed even worse than their weekday counterparts in terms of presenting economic expertise from actual economists. Of the 80 total guests who appeared during qualifying segments on the economy in the first quarter of 2016, zero were economists.

Political Guests Accounted For Nearly Eight In 10 Sunday Guests. Of the 80 guests who appeared during Sunday show discussions of economic news and policy, 63 -- or nearly 80 percent -- were political guests. Policy debates between the Democratic and Republican parties, and among the candidates themselves, provided the bulk of the content of these segments. The five Democratic and Republican presidential candidates still in the race at the end of March accounted for 48 of those appearances, led by Sanders, who accumulated 20 Sunday appearances.

Women Remained Underrepresented In Economic News And Policy Segments

Women Accounted For Just Over One-Quarter Of Prime-Time Economic Guests. In the first quarter of 2016, women accounted for just 64 -- or 26 percent -- of the 245 guests during cable prime-time discussions focused on the economy. Women accounted for roughly 35 percent of guests on both CNN (26 of 75) and MSNBC (25 of 71), but accounted for only 13 percent (13 of 99) of total guests during qualifying segments on Fox News. This phenomenon is a reflection of the considerable airtime Fox dedicates every day to the field of Republican presidential candidates, nearly all of whom were men during the survey period (Carly Fiorina ended her candidacy on February 10, and she was featured in zero economic discussions). [Media Matters, 4/7/16]

Women Accounted For Less Than One-Quarter Of Sunday Show Guests. In the first quarter of 2016, women accounted for just 18 -- or 23 percent -- of the 80 guests during Sunday discussions focused on the economy. The representation of women during discussions of economic news and policy would have been even worse if not for NBC’s Meet the Press, which featured seven women, comprising 37 percent of its total guests. Every other Sunday show was actually below average, with CBS’s Face the Nation performing the worst, which featured only two women, comprising 11 percent of the total guests:

Previous quarterly and biannual economic indicator tracking reports are available here: third and fourth quarter, 2015; first and second quarter, 2015; third and fourth quarters, 2014; second quarter, 2014; first quarter, 2014; fourth quarter, 2013; third quarter, 2013; second quarter, 2013.

Methodology

** PBS dedicates more daily airtime to live news than its broadcast competitors, 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’s Nightly News.

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 January 1 through March 31, 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 does not air regular news programming during the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot.

For this study, Media Matters included only segments that contained substantial discussion of policy implications on the macroeconomy. We defined a "substantial discussion" as any segment where a host dedicates a monologue, or portion of a monologue, to economic news or policy analysis, or any segment where two or more guests discuss economic news or a policy topic. We did not include teasers or clips of news events, or rebroadcasts of news packages that were already counted when they first aired in the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. survey window.

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 advocated tax cuts to spur job creation or economic growth. In some instances, a host or guest conflated 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.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.