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'Bad News Bears': Executive Summary

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 Polls have repeatedly shown a public dissatisfied with the economy under President Bush. A January 2006 Pew Research Center survey said 64 percent of those questioned thought economic conditions were fair or poor – and that wasn’t even Bush’s low point. The May New York Times/CBS poll gave Bush just a 28 percent rating for the economy.

     Network news stories have painted a bleak picture of an economy in decline. Reporters treated gas prices as a metaphor for the economy – only when they were high. And a slowing housing market coming off two record years was just another club used against Republican incumbents by a pessimistic press.

     But the truth of the economy is far different. The United States continues to enjoy solid job growth. In the last year, 1.7 million new jobs were added and nearly 6 million have been created since August 2003 – a streak of more than three years of positive growth. Unemployment is a low 4.7 percent. Gas prices have declined once again – more than 75 cents from their recent highs. And though the economy actually grew just 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2006, which followed the rapid expansion of the first quarter – revised upward to 5.6 percent.

     That’s not how things looked on the evening news shows on all three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC. The Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute looked at all stories referencing the “economy” or “economic” news between Aug. 1, 2005, and July 31, 2006. Here are some key findings:


    Reports Negatively Charged: More than twice as many stories and briefs focused on negative aspects of the economy (62 percent) compared to good news (31 percent). News broadcasts dwelled on one prospective cataclysm after another, yet each time the economy continued unfazed.


    Negative Stories Given More Air Time: Bad news was emphasized on all three networks. Negative news appeared in full-length stories twice as often as it appeared in shorter, brief items. Good news was relegated to briefs. More good news appeared in brief form than as full-length stories.


    Man-on-the-Street Interviews Spin Stories: Reporters used ordinary people to underscore negative stories by roughly a 3-to-1 ratio over positive. Since these are interviews chosen entirely by the reporter, this shows particular bias. NBC was especially bad at this, featuring negative accounts six times as often as positive ones.


    Worst Network: More than 80 percent of the full-length stories on the “CBS Evening News” delivered a negative view of the economy – easily the worst of the three broadcast news programs. The network hid the good news of jobs or economic growth in short items. More than 56 percent of CBS’s brief stories were positive.


    Best Network: ABC was hardly the “best” anything for its economic coverage. It simply wasn’t as negative as either NBC or CBS. More than 56 percent of ABC reports were negative compared to slightly more than 36 percent positive.


     To improve coverage, BMI recommends that the networks:


    Carefully select a range of economists and analysts to balance negative reporting.


    Cover stories that reflect the economic data, not the reporter’s opinion.


    Educate the public about what the economic data really mean. Don’t just report changing numbers like sports scores.