STUDY: Cable And Broadcast Coverage Of The Economy Spiked After The Election

Representation Of Economists Remained High In Fourth Quarter As Surprising Election Result Forced Outlets To Scramble For Explanations

››› ››› ALEX MORASH & CRAIG HARRINGTON

The final quarter of 2016 saw an increase in cable and broadcast news coverage of the economy from the prior three-month period. Yet the proportion of economic coverage that focused on economic inequality decreased sharply as attacks on progressive economic policies rose. Fox News led the charge in attacking progressive policies and health care reform throughout the fourth quarter of the year, while the leading defender of progressive initiatives, MSNBC, aired most of its economic coverage after Election Day. The relative proportion of economists booked as guests during economic news segments remained higher than in years past but dropped as a percentage from the third to fourth quarters of 2016. The proportional representation of women in cable and broadcast evening news discussions of the economy reached a record, but dispiriting, high in the fourth quarter at a mere 30 percent of all guests.

Economic News Increased Over The Previous Quarter

PBS Economic Coverage Dwarfed That Of Its Broadcast Competitors. PBS maintained its year-long dominance over the three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- in coverage of the economy in the fourth quarter of 2016. PBS ran 40 segments on the economy in the fourth quarter, more than its three competitors combined. ABC doubled the number of segments dedicated to the economy that it aired in the fourth quarter to 10 compared to the third quarter, CBS increased its coverage over the same time period from nine to 14, and NBC aired eight segments on the economy, up from just five in the previous quarter. For the year, PBS featured 175 qualifying economic news segments, far outpacing CBS (64), NBC (39), and ABC (35). [Media Matters, 11/2/16, 8/1/16, 4/25/16]

Fox Remained Cable News Leader In Economic Coverage By Pushing Economic Misinformation. Fox News outpaced both CNN and MSNBC in total coverage of the economy in the fourth quarter -- continuing a year-long trend. Fox News featured 97 segments on the economy in the fourth quarter -- up from 76 in the prior period -- largely focused on attacking the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and falsely claiming tax cuts boost economic growth and job creation. CNN aired 41 segments on the economy in the fourth quarter compared to 35 in the third, while MSNBC featured 65 segments -- more than double the 25 segments from the prior period. [Media Matters, 11/2/16, 8/1/16, 4/25/16]

MSNBC Economic Coverage Surged After Election. Of the 65 qualifying economic segments MSNBC produced in the fourth quarter, 55 of those segments appeared after November 8. All told, 85 percent of MSNBC’s economic coverage was crammed into the final 58 percent of the survey period. MSNBC’s competitors did not have the same post-election surge in reports on the economy in the fourth quarter: Fox aired 40 qualifying segments before the election, and 56 after; CNN aired 19 before the election, and 22 after. [Media Matters, 11/2/16]

Sunday Show Economic Coverage Increased Due To More Attacks On Progressive Policies. Coverage of the economy on the most prominent Sunday political talk shows increased to 49 segments during the fourth quarter from just 39 in the third. Part of this increase is because there were more discussions advocating for tax cuts and attacks on the performance of the ACA. The fourth quarter marked the first time in 2016 that NBC’s Meet The Press edged out Sunday competitors for the most segments on the economy (12), compared to ABC’s This Week (11), Fox Broadcasting’s Fox News Sunday (11), CNN’s State of The Union (9), and CBS’s Face The Nation (6). [Media Matters, 11/2/16, 8/1/16, 4/25/16]

Weeknight Economic News Increased While Reports On Economic Inequality Declined

Discussion Of Economic Inequality Dropped Precipitously From Previous High. The proportion of economic news segments dedicated to discussions of economic inequality and poverty dropped to just 21 percent of qualifying segments in the fourth quarter compared to a record high of 42 percent in the third quarter. Part of the drop-off in the discussion in inequality is because there were more discussions of other topics and there was an increase in the number of economic segments overall. The declining coverage may also be attributable to a decrease in interview segments with former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who made lingering economic inequalities and proposed solutions a key focus of his campaign. Of the 997 weeknight segments identified by Media Matters that discussed economic policy last year, 317 (30 percent) discussed economic inequality. [Media Matters, 11/2/16, 8/1/16, 4/25/16]

Attacks On Progressive Policies Rose To End The Year. Segments including negative critiques of progressive economic policies saw a noticeable uptick compared to the previous quarter. Discussions advocating tax cuts increased from just 32 segments in the third quarter to 65 in the fourth quarter, while segments defending taxes or advocating new revenue streams increased from 31 to 38. The number of segments framing initiatives to raise the minimum wage in a negative light doubled to six in the fourth quarter, while positive discussions of raising the minimum wage increased only from 15 segments to 21. [Media Matters, 11/2/16]

Coverage Of Health Care Surged As Fear Grew That Millions May Lose Their Insurance. Segments discussing the ACA in the fourth quarter far outpaced coverage of the health care law in the third quarter, with much of the discussion focused on how Republican plans to repeal the law could impact millions of people who count on it for access to care. Media Matters registered 47 segments defending the ACA or advocating expanded access to care, up from just 12 in the third quarter. Segments discussing repealing or replacing the law climbed even higher, with 50 segments framing health care reform in a negative light compared to just 16 such discussions in the prior quarter.

Fox Led The Fight To Strip Millions Of Americans Of Their Health Insurance. Fox News dedicated the most segments, 35, to attacking the ACA compared to only four segments defending it. CNN aired more negative segments on the ACA (10) than positive (seven) while MSNBC featured 22 segments defending the law with no segments advocating for its repeal. For 2016, Media Matters identified 96 positive segments on the ACA and 103 segments attacking the law. Fox was the leading opponent of health care reform and made up 76 percent of all negative segments (78) while MSNBC (34) and PBS (23) accounted for 59 percent of all positive coverage of the health care law. The major broadcast outlets -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- accounted for an insignificant amount of total health care coverage. The majority of MSNBC’s on-air defense of the ACA -- 19 segments, or 56 percent -- aired between November 9 and December 31 after the election results were already counted.

Fox Maintained Top Spot In Promoting “Alternative Facts” On The Economy. Fox News continued its unique advocacy of often contradictory right-wing economic policies. The network featured 82 percent of all segments (53) across all networks in the fourth quarter calling for tax cuts, 71 percent of all segments (17) discussing the need for further deficit reduction, and 70 percent of all segments (35) calling for the repeal of the ACA. Fox was also responsible for 62 percent of all segments (28) discussing poverty, but most of those segments came from Hannity (23) and either attempted to shame the poor or blame President Barack Obama and Democrats for the persistence of poverty in the United States.

Sunday Shows Focused On Economic Growth And Hosted Guests Who Called For Tax Cuts. Economic growth (25) and calls for additional tax cuts (19) were the leading economic topics on the major Sunday shows in the fourth quarter. Media Matters identified nine segments where tax cuts and economic growth were both discussed, often within the misleading context of pushing the right-wing myth that tax cuts lead to economic growth.

Sanders Defended Progressive Policies While Trump’s Team Pushed Tax Cuts. The surge in Sunday morning show segments on tax cuts was the work of the Trump transition team, which pushed for tax cuts on many appearances after the election. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway pushed for tax cuts in two segments, Vice President-elect Mike Pence pushed tax cuts in three segments, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani pushed tax cuts in four segments, and President-elect Donald Trump promoted the supposed need for new tax cuts twice. The most frequent Sunday show advocate for progressive economic policies was Sen. Sanders, who appeared six times -- double the number of appearances by runner-up House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) -- and focused, as always, on economic inequality (five), raising the minimum wage (five), and maintaining or increasing federal revenue (four).

Despite Small Gains, Women Were Horribly Marginalized In 2016

Representation Of Women Increased Slightly During The Fourth Quarter. Women represented only 30 percent of the 294 guests featured during qualifying economic news segments in the fourth quarter. The glaring disparity actually represented a record high point for the year, both in terms of the number of women featured (87) and the proportion of women among the total guests. For the year, of the 1,032 total guests featured during economic news discussions, just 281 -- or 27 percent -- were women.

Sunday Representation Of Women Was Even Worse. For the fourth quarter, only 18 of the 64 guests (28 percent) featured during Sunday show discussions of the economy were women. Of the 251 total guests featured during Sunday programming focused on the economy in 2016, only 60 of them -- or 24 percent -- were women.

Progressive Economists Lead In Television News Discussions Of The Economy. Media Matters identified 21 appearances by economists during segments discussing the economy in the fourth quarter of the year, where they accounted for just over 7 percent of all guests. Former labor secretary and University of California, Berkeley economic policy professor Robert Reich made the most appearances (8), followed closely by University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee (7). Economists Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities each appeared twice. Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody's Analytics and financial economist Diane Swonk each appeared once. Swonk was the only woman economist identified in a segment in the fourth quarter. For 2016, Media Matters identified 63 total appearances by economists discussing the economy, representing just 6 percent of all guests. Of those 63 economists, 4 were women.

Politicians Dominated Sunday Shows. Media Matters did not identify a single economist of the 64 guests who appeared in qualifying economic news segments during Sunday morning shows in the fourth quarter.

Previous quarterly and biannual economic indicator tracking reports are available here: third quarter, 2016second quarter, 2016; first quarter, 2016; third and fourth quarters, 2015; first and second quarters, 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, as well as the major Sunday news programs on ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting from October 1, 2016, through December 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, State of the Union, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Tonight, Fox News Sunday, 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. This survey includes CNN’s second live hour of Anderson Cooper 360 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 advocates 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 promote 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.

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