Economists have been puzzled this year by the persistence with which perceptions about the economy have lagged behind the economic data. For the most recent 12-month period for which we have data, for example, the economy grew almost exactly as fast as it did during the best 12-month period during President Clinton's two terms. But the economic mood of the country has been much different.
It isn't just the economy that influences people's perceptions. In research we just released, we find that media coverage is also an important determinant. We found that newspaper headlines reporting economic news on unemployment, gross domestic product (GDP), retail sales, and durable goods tended to be much more frequently negative when a Republican was in the White House. And this was true even after accounting for the economic numbers on which the stories were based and how those numbers were changing over time.
We also found that positive headlines explained whether people thought that the economy was getting better more than the economic variables themselves. Newspapers are indeed important.
There have, of course, been numerous anecdotal claims of media bias. What has been lacking has been a rigorous scientific study of media bias, and our new paper is an attempt to provide just that.
If we limit ourselves to news coverage of economic data, it is possible to get an objective measure of the news behind the stories. Our research team first collected a list of days that important economic news was released for most papers since 1991 and for four major papers and the Associated Press since 1985. We then used Nexis, a computer database of news stories that contains information on 389 newspapers, to gather all of the 12,620 headlines that ran in America's newspapers covering economic news stories. We excluded follow-up and feature stories because we wanted to be able to link the headlines directly with the numbers on which they were based.
Headlines are relatively easy to classify since they say things are getting better, worse or mixed. For example, on Jan. 31, the government reported that the real GDP had grown 4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003. The New York Times covered this, appropriately, as good news, writing the headline, "Economy remained strong in 4th quarter, U.S. reports." At the same time, the Chicago Tribune wrote that "GDP growth disappoints; job worries linger." Headlines are so divergent, it's sometimes hard to believe they are referring to the same event.
Actual economic data explains much about the headlines--but far from everything. We found that the incidence of positive coverage during Republican presidencies was fairly steady--but economic news under President Clinton received by far the most positive coverage. This partisan gap or bias (the difference in positive headlines between Republicans and Democrats for the same underlying economic news) consistently implied that Democrats got between 10 and 20 percentage points more positive headlines.
We also examined individual newspapers. Among the top 10 papers, we found strong evidence that the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post were much more likely to have positive headlines for Democrats even with the same economic news. The New York Post showed no statistically significant difference. The Los Angeles Times did not tend to treat Republicans and Democrats significantly differently.
Even including the Los Angeles Times, Ronald Reagan, a president who presided over one of the most vigorous economies in our history, still received seven percent fewer positive news stories than Clinton after accounting for the different economic conditions.
What motivates newspapers and their copy editors to pick the headlines that they do is not a question we tried to answer. Whether these motivations are conscious or not, a partisan gap exists, and it helps explain one of this year's biggest economic puzzles. Unfortunately, the recent charges of political bias at CBS may only be a small part of the problem with the news.
Kevin A. Hassett is director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.