The New York Times indicated that it will take steps to more accurately present numbers-based stories, a change that will ensure readers are better informed on economic issues.
In an October 18 post, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan addressed growing concerns that the outlet relies too heavily on reporting numbers-based stories in terms of raw figures. According to Sullivan:
Many readers have written to me recently, given the federal budget crisis, to make a simple request: Please advocate for news stories that put large numbers in context. If The Times does not do that, they say, it is part of the problem, and if it does do so, other news organizations are very likely to follow suit.
Sullivan explained that she met with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to discuss ways in which the Times can direct its reporters to provide relevant context when writing about large numbers, such as the federal budget or national debt.
The Times' decision to begin providing context for large numbers is a welcome change. According to a Media Matters' analysis of major print outlets over the first half of 2013, the paper largely failed to provide relevant context -- such as comparable numbers or addressing figures in percentage terms -- when reporting economic data. The paper failed to provide context in 67 percent of articles that mentioned economic data.*
Many economists have noted concerns over reporting very large economic numbers without relevant context, claiming that it often amounts to little more than scare tactics used to stoke fears about the size of the national debt and deficits. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has led the charge against this type of unintentionally misleading reporting, noting that the overreliance on very large raw numbers also increases the likelihood that they will be misreported. Leonhardt acknowledges that pressure to change their economic reporting came from "the left," but explains that it's not a partisan issue:
And while he noted that the recent pressure for change is "coming from the left," specifically the economist-writer Dean Baker and MoveOn.org - which now has more than 18,000 signatures on a petition -- this is not a partisan issue.
"Math has neither a conservative nor a liberal bias," Mr. Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt explained that it is difficult for readers to conceptualize large numbers such as the the dollar amount of the national debt. Additionally, Leonhardt admitted that even he confused the distinction between millions and billions of dollars when reporting a large figure on the front page of the paper.
The Times' move away from relying on raw numbers could go a long way in educating the public about economic issues. Polls consistently show that voters are generally unaware of the size and scope of federal programs, perhaps in part because news outlets rarely put the numbers in context.
According to Sullivan and Leonhardt, directives may take the form of new stylebook guidelines or staff-wide emails, and will be "determined within a couple of months."
*updated for clarity
Fox News completely ignored the role of political brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling in prompting a credit downgrade warning, erroneously claiming that the warning was prompted by concerns over long-term debt stabilization.
On October 15, credit rating agency Fitch placed the United States on a negative rating watch, threatening to downgrade the country's debt from "AAA" status if the debt ceiling is not raised in a timely manner.
On the October 16 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum interviewed Fox Business' Stuart Varney regarding Fitch's downgrade threat, asking why the stock market has not reacted negatively to the warning. The conversation eventually turned to the United States' long-term debt prospects, with MacCallum asking if rating agencies have become less concerned about the national debt. Varney responded by claiming that not only are rating agencies still concerned about debt, but also that Fitch's warning was primarily in response to the United States' long-term debt:
MACCALLUM : It used to be that the credit rating agencies were very concerned about the long-term financial stability of the United States of America. Is that no longer the case Stuart?
VARNEY: No, they are still concerned. That's what this warning was all about. We have failed to get our long-term debt under control.
Varney's assessment of Fitch's warning is false.
At no point in their discussion did MacCallum or Varney mention the primary reason Fitch placed the United States' credit on negative watch: brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling. In its warning, Fitch directly cited political obstacles to raising the debt ceiling as a "high" driver of the rating watch (emphasis added):
The U.S. authorities have not raised the federal debt ceiling in a timely manner before the Treasury exhausts extraordinary measures. The U.S. Treasury Secretary has said that extraordinary measures will be exhausted by 17 October, leaving cash reserves of just USD30bn. Although Fitch continues to believe that the debt ceiling will be raised soon, the political brinkmanship and reduced financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. default.
While Varney contends that debt worries were a primary driver in prompting the warning, Fitch explicitly stated that current and near term debt levels (as a percentage of the economy) are consistent with the agency's "AAA" rating. Fitch did suggest that public debt should be put on a downward trend in the medium to long term, but noted this concern was secondary to the more immediate and potentially disastrous problem of failing to raise the debt ceiling.
Republicans have held firm in their unwillingness to raise the debt ceiling without extracting political concessions, most related to defunding, delaying, or eliminating provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
Virtually every other news outlet noted that Fitch was primarily concerned about brinkmanship and failure to raise the debt ceiling. Instead of noting this fact, Fox chose to continue its history of raising false alarms over the nation's debt load.
Right-wing media figures have repeatedly accused Obama administration officials of using "scare tactics" for correctly pointing out that the U.S. will default if the debt ceiling is not raised by October 17. Economists, however, have echoed the administration's warnings, saying such claims that the U.S. will not default is "crazy talk."
Here's a look at some of the right-wing media's worst accusations:
Right-wing media figures have repeatedly criticized Obama administration officials for claiming that the U.S. will default if the debt ceiling is not raised by October 17, instead claiming the U.S. could prioritize payments to bondholders as a way to avoid default. But economists note that the threat of default is real and that the prioritization alternative proposed by Republicans is not a long-term solution.
Fox News continued to hype the myth that the debt ceiling raises the national debt, smearing President Obama's comments at an October 8 press conference as false. In reality, the debt ceiling does not raise the debt or authorize additional spending, but instead enables the U.S. government to finance existing legal obligations.
In the first week of cable and broadcast nightly news coverage of the ongoing government shutdown, networks largely failed to report the effects on low-income Americans, instead opting for discussions of political leverage and national park closures.
Cable and broadcast evening news significantly increased coverage of inequality and poverty in recent months. This increased coverage comes at a crucial time, with reports showing historic highs in both metrics.
A Media Matters analysis found that issues of inequality and poverty were discussed in roughly 20 percent of broadcast and cable nightly news segments on the economy over the third quarter of 2013.
This spotlight on inequality in television news represents a departure from past coverage. In the second quarter of 2013, inequality and poverty were mentioned in only 9.3 percent of cable and broadcast segments on the economy. Similarly, major print outlets have failed to note structural inequality in their coverage of policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
Regardless, the increased coverage of poverty and inequality, especially when it is devoid of political motivations to defund anti-poverty programs, comes at a critical time.
In September, economists found that income inequality had reached its highest level since 1928, right before the onset of the Great Depression, with incomes for the top 1 percent of earners rising 20 percent. Meanwhile, incomes for the bottom 99 percent rose by only 1 percent. This research came on the heels of a report by the Economic Policy Institute that found median wages have remained stagnant for nearly a decade, despite increases in productivity.
As inequality has risen, improvement in poverty statistics has been lacking. On September 17, the United States Census Bureau released its annual report on income poverty and health insurance coverage for 2012. The report found that there was no significant improvement in reducing poverty since 2011, with the official poverty rate holding at 15 percent.
As reports flood in about the rising inequality and stagnant poverty rates, media have no choice but to cover issues that are unfortunately pertinent to an increasing number of Americans.
Broadcast and cable evening news coverage touched upon a variety of economic topics, including deficit reduction, economic growth, and effects of the Affordable Care Act throughout the third quarter of 2013. While coverage of certain issues improved, a Media Matters analysis shows that many of these segments lacked proper context or input from economists, with Fox News advancing the erroneous notion that the Affordable Care Act is the purported cause behind poor job growth.
Fox Business host Melissa Francis erroneously claimed that previous government shutdowns in the 1990s did not harm the economy, a notion that is in direct opposition to economic evidence.
On the October 1 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ, host Bill Hemmer discussed the ongoing government shutdown with Francis. During the discussion, Francis chided President Obama for claiming that previous shutdowns in the 1990s harmed the economy, claiming that data show "that wasn't the case."
Francis' argument rested upon the fact that over earlier shutdowns, GDP growth remained relatively strong and stabilized at levels above pre-shutdown rates. The Daily Caller presented a similar argument in an article on September 29, claiming the "economy boomed" during previous shutdowns.
While Francis is correct that growth remained strong over the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, this doesn't answer the question of what growth would have been like in absence of a shutdown.
According to Joel Prakken, senior managing director at Macroeconomic Advisers, those shutdowns shaved 0.25 percentage points off GDP growth for the end of 1995, mostly due to federal employee furloughs. Furthermore, the Office of Management and Budget estimated that the total cost to the federal government from those shutdowns at more than $2 billion in today's dollars.
While Francis is quick to dismiss that economic growth would be affected in the current shutdown, independent analysis shows this is not the case. According to Bloomberg:
Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics Inc. estimates a three-to-four week shutdown would cut growth by 1.4 points. Zandi projects a 2.5 percent annualized pace of fourth-quarter growth without a shutdown. A two-week shutdown starting Oct. 1 could cut growth by 0.3 percentage point to a 2.3 percent rate, according to St. Louis-based Macroeconomic Advisers LLC.
CNBC's Joe Kernen reacted to news from the Indian central bank by forwarding a number of racial stereotypes against Indian-Americans.
On September 20, India's central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates by a quarter percentage point to address concerns over inflation.
Reacting to the news and its effect on exchange rates on the September 20 edition of CNBC's Squawk Box, co-hosts Joe Kernen, Becky Quick, and Andrew Ross Sorkin turned the discussion to the rupee. After Quick noted that she still had rupees left from a recent trip to India, Kernen repeatedly stated the name "Gandhi" -- whose likeness appears on the rupee -- in a stereotypical Indian accent and later asked, "Are they good at 7-11?"
After Quick told Kernen his comments were insulting, Kernen apologized, saying, "I'm sorry, I take it back. I apologize, before I have to."
Here's a full transcript of the exchange:
QUICK: I think I have rupees in my wallet right now.
KERNEN: From your trip?
QUICK: No, I think I honestly do from the last time I was in India.
QUICK: Yeah, I think I might. Hold on.
KERNEN: You got a rupee in your wallet?
QUICK: I think I do.
SORKIN: That sounds a little, um.
KERNEN: You've got to be kidding. There is the rupee chart, just in case you were wondering where the rupee is. The dollar had been soaring, look what happened when we said we were going to keep pumping.
QUICK: I do.
KERNEN: Becky's got a rupee.
SORKIN: A rupee!
QUICK: Here's a fifty and a ten.
SORKIN: How much are those worth, do we know?
QUICK: I don't remember.
SORKIN: Look at Gandhi.
KERNEN: Well, ones worth ten and one's worth fifty, what do you mean?
SORKIN: Gandhi's on the rupee. Look at that.
KERNEN: Gandhi. Gandhi. Now. No, I can't make any jokes about that, I mean do they take -
KERNEN: No I can't do it. I was going to say something.
QUICK: Please don't.
KERNEN: I really can't?
QUICK: No, you can't.
KERNEN: Are they good at 7-11?
KERNEN: Alright, alright, I won't. Let's look at the - people say that all the time. Right? Oh, you're nervous.
SORKIN: They do. They do say that all the time.
KERNEN: They do. They say it all the time.
QUICK: It's insulting.
SORKIN: I've heard that.
KERNEN: It is. Alright, I'm sorry, I take it back. I apologize, before I have to.
UPDATE: In a statement to Mail Online shortly after Media Matters reported on his initial comments, Kernen apologized:
In a comment to Mail Online, Kernen said: 'Last Friday, I made an inappropriate and insensitive remark on Squawk Box. I apologize for any offense it caused.'