REPORT: Print Media Mislead Readers On Economy With Raw Data, Little Context

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE & CRAIG HARRINGTON

Three major national print outlets were more likely to report economic figures in terms of raw numbers devoid of relevant and necessary context, such as previous years' numbers or monthly figures that would give readers an accurate depiction of the economy. These findings, calculated since halfway through 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media.

Print Media Rely Heavily on Raw Numbers

74 Percent Of Budget Figures Reported As Raw Numbers Without Important Context. Three major print outlets -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- were almost three times as likely to report figures on U.S. national debt, deficits, spending, and revenue as raw numbers than figures with relevant context or in percentage terms since July 2013. Only 12 percent of mentions of figures gave relevant context -- such as previous years' or months' figures -- when reporting with raw numbers. Fourteen percent of figures were instead presented as a percentage term relative to GDP or the size of the federal budget. These findings are largely in line with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media budget reporting.

Lack Of Relevant Context A Problem Across All Three Outlets. Of the three major print outlets analyzed, The Washington Post showed the heaviest reliance on raw numbers devoid of context, which accounted for about 78 percent of budget figures mentions. The Wall Street Journal showed the least reliance on raw numbers -- 65 percent of all figures reported -- and the greatest reliance on figures expressed in percentage terms.

For Media Matters' previous report on print media's reliance on raw numbers, click here.

Methodology

Media Matters conducted Nexis and Factiva (for The Wall Street Journal) searches for print articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post between July 1, 2013, and February 14, 2014, using the search terms: (debt or deficit) w/10 (US or United States or national or federal or budget).

We only coded figures that related to the United States national budget, including figures on debt, deficits, spending, and revenue. Figures reported for state, local, and foreign budgets were not included in the analysis.

We defined figures that are represented as "raw numbers" as those that are expressed in nominal dollar terms devoid of context (such as previous years' or months' figures, or whether the figure is larger or smaller than expected).

We defined figures that are represented as "raw numbers with context" as those that are expressed in nominal dollar terms with relevant context (such as previous years' or months' figures, or whether the figure is larger or smaller than expected).

We defined figures that are represented as "percentage terms" as those that are expressed in terms of the relevant percentage. For example, debt expressed as a percentage of GDP, spending expressed as a percentage of total federal spending, or revenue expressed as a percentage of total federal revenue.

Posted In
Economy, Budget
Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times
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