Friday, June 20, 2008

The Media's Pro-Business Bias

The Media's Pro-Business Bias

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Today, the Center for American Progress hosted a panel discussion to mark the release of a new report analyzing how the media covers the economy. The report, "Journalists Give Workers Business," finds that "the media ignores ordinary workers and instead covers economic issues from the perspective of business." The analysis by David Madland, Director of CAP's American Worker Project, looked at newspaper and television coverage of unemployment, minimum wage, trade, and credit card debt issues in 2007 and concluded that "the perspective of workers is largely missing from media coverage, while the views of business are frequently presented." A front page story in Wednesday's Washington Post, for instance, asked why Americans are "gloomier than the economy" but avoided talking to a single worker. The article failed to mention that incomes for most workers have declined since 2001, that health care and retirement benefits have become scarcer and more expensive, and that inequality has risen to unprecedented levels. As the report argues, this type of the coverage is the norm, not the exception. All too often the traditional media prefers "elite sources, such as government or business representatives, over ordinary citizens."

WORKERS SHUT OUT OF THE DEBATE: While conservative media critics often claim that the mainstream media has a strong liberal bias, the report suggests that the bias of elite business sources overwhelms any partisan divide. After studying economy-related articles from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and monitoring the economic news reports on ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, FOX News, and CNBC throughout 2007, the study concludes that "representatives of business were quoted or cited nearly two-and-a-half times as frequently as were workers or their union representatives." Specifically, "in coverage of both the minimum wage and trade, the views of businesses were sourced more than one-and-a-half times as frequently as those of workers." In stories about employment, "businesses were quoted or cited over six times as frequently as were workers," according to the report. In fact, only in coverage of credit card debt "was coverage more balanced, presenting the perspectives of ordinary citizens in the proportion as those of business," suggesting that the media "can find out how complex economic issues will impact ordinary people and present the news from their perspective."

WHY BIAS MATTERS: The report notes, "our belief in democratic debate demands informed citizens and requires that different points of view are allowed to be heard." An April 7, 2007 article in the New York Times, however, undermined this ideal. In fact, the story, which discussed "whether the job market is strong," sourced economists representing business and advocacy groups, but did not offer the worker's perspective. This type of coverage "is repeated again and again," artificially narrowing the spectrum of debate and misinforming policy makers and the general public of alternate viewpoints. Moreover, the media "has the ability to help determine which issues people think are important" and "can even influence how people vote." Madland notes, for example, that "studies have found that as Fox News expanded into new towns, these areas were increasingly likely to vote for Republican candidates," while viewers of ABC News were "influenced to vote for Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale because Peter Jennings used more positive facial cues when talking about the president than he did about the challenger."

Madland argues that "the most common explanation for the kind of bias is that journalists have a preference for elite sources" because it is "easier for a reporter to talk to a professional, such as a business spokesperson, than to find a good quote from a worker or ordinary citizen." To that end, a June 26, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal about the need for the nation's largest financial service companies to "defuse protectionist sentiment in the United States and promote free-trade agreements" mentions that such agreements would meet "stiff resistance from organized labor," but it does not ask labor to explain its opposition. In addition, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) notes that "mergers in the news industry have accelerated" the growth of large news conglomerates, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media and undermining journalistic standards. Whatever the source of the bias, Madland's study suggests that the media are capable of providing much more balanced coverage of economic issues.

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