REPORT: Print Media's Misleading Coverage Of Social Security Figures

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE & CRAIG HARRINGTON

Coverage of Social Security in three major national print outlets relied on reporting figures in raw numbers devoid of relevant context -- such as previous years' figures -- that could provide a more accurate picture of the program's finances. These findings, calculated since July 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media's coverage of Social Security.

Print Media Rely Heavily On Raw Numbers To Report On Social Security

67 Percent Of Social Security Finance Figures Reported As Raw Numbers Without Important Context. Since July 2013, three major print outlets -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- were more likely to report figures on the revenue, spending, and funding gap for Social Security as raw numbers than figures with relevant context or in percentage terms. Only 16 percent of mentions of figures gave relevant context -- such as previous years' or months' figures -- when reporting with raw numbers. Sixteen percent of figures were instead presented as a percentage term relative to GDP, the size of the federal budget, or total taxable payrolls. These findings are largely in line with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media Social Security reporting.

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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 80 percent of its mentions of Social Security finance figures. The Wall Street Journal showed the least reliance on raw numbers -- 44 percent of all figures reported -- and the greatest reliance on figures presented with relevant context or expressed in percentage terms.

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For Media Matters' previous report on print media's reliance on raw numbers when covering Social Security, 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 21, 2014, using the search term, "Social Security."

We only coded figures that referred to the overall funding of Social Security. For example, we did not include figures on benefits for individual recipients.

We only coded figures that related to the United States Social Security program.

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, Social Security spending, revenue, or funding gap expressed as a percentage of GDP, total federal budget, or total taxable payrolls.

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