Recent Media Matters research revealed the overwhelming absence of economists and economic debate in television coverage of year-end budget negotiations. The lack of expert opinion has led to an over reliance on easily digested phrases such as "fiscal cliff," which many economists feel is a misleading term.
A Media Matters study found that economists have been sorely lacking in media discussions of budget negotiations, accounting for only 4.4 percent of guests brought on to address the topic. Their scant presence has steered most discussions toward non-economic issues, such as political leverage in negotiations.
Of course, since budget issues are inherently economic, removing the economics from the discussion entirely is not possible. Instead of providing substantive context, the media seem to have taken the tack of relying on misleading buzzwords to do the explaining.
The so-called "fiscal cliff" describes a combination of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect at the end of the year that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, could cause the U.S. economy to experience recession in 2013. The origins of the current use of the phrase "fiscal cliff" apparently stem from comments made by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in February 2012.
Since Bernanke's use of the phrase, it has become ubiquitous in media coverage of budget negotiations. Media Matters found that in 337 segments across cable and network news, the term "fiscal cliff" was used to frame discussions 287 times.
While the media have adopted the phrase with open arms, economists -- and even some journalists -- are not so convinced of its accuracy. According to economist Dean Baker, it "totally misrepresents what happens if no deal is reached," and the media's insistence in using it "is incredibly irresponsible." Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman succinctly points out the fallacy of using such a phrase:
It's worth pointing out that the fiscal cliff isn't really a cliff. It's not like the debt-ceiling confrontation, where terrible things might well have happened right away if the deadline had been missed. This time, nothing very bad will happen to the economy if agreement isn't reached until a few weeks or even a few months into 2013.
The problem of the media's reliance on "fiscal cliff" terminology, however, goes further than simply mischaracterizing economic realities, and moves into the territory of fearmongering. In a Huffington Post column, University of California linguist George Lakoff explains the rhetorical implications of the phrase:
Imagine driving toward a cliff with the possibility of going over. The car you are in is out of control. The cliff is a feature of the natural environment. If the car goes over, everyone in it would be harmed or killed. Thus, if the economy is a vehicle moving forward without control toward the cliff, there is great and immediate danger, and so the "fiscal cliff" metaphor engenders fear. Thus, knowledge about driving out of control toward a cliff, together with the metaphors cited above, characterizes the implications of the "fiscal cliff" metaphor.
So not only is the phrase misleading, but it also stokes unnecessary fear among viewers. While some media segments have offered alternative frames of budget negotiations discussions that do not convey immediate catastrophe -- such as "fiscal slope" or "fiscal curve" -- the overwhelming majority adopted the inflammatory rhetoric of "fiscal cliff."
Of course, these issues could be sufficiently mitigated if the media provided an adequate outlet for economists, instead of relying on catchy phrases and misplacing their attention on political issues.