Media coverage of the economic downturn in the U.S. has lagged behind both economic activity and public interest, according to a study being released Monday by a Washington, D.C.-based research group.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed more than 5,000 economic stories in 2007 and the first half of 2008. The stories, by 48 different news outlets, were delivered by cable news channels, network television, radio, newspapers and the Internet.
The study found that reliance on government data to track the economy is leading to scattershot coverage that, at times, lags months behind actual economic conditions.
“We can see little flashpoints in gas prices or a spike in joblessness but getting the whole picture is extremely difficult, in part because we’re depending on government collected data, which could often be three months later,” said Project Director Tom Rosenstiel.
At times, this has meant that reporters were writing about weakening economic trends at the very moment that conditions were starting to improve or vice versa.
Meanwhile, various media have focused on different aspects of the economy at different times. Television coverage has tended to focus on gas prices, while newspapers have leaned toward banking and housing stories.
As a result, it is difficult for the casual news consumer to understand the story of the economy, Rosenstiel said. “Is it a housing story? Is it a gasoline prices story? Is it an inflation story?”
The study also found that Americans’ concern about the economy has far surpassed the media’s focus on the topic. The economy has been the number 2 story of 2008 so far — ahead of the war in Iraq. But media coverage of the presidential race has outstripped economic coverage by a five-to-one margin, although the economy has ranked as Americans’ top concern.
There are no easy ways to wean journalists from depending on government statistics, Rosenstiel said.
“We need to create other listening posts than the Treasury Department and the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” he said.
“Overall, this is a hard story for journalists to tell because it isn’t an event, it isn’t a person,” Rosenstiel said. “And yet, where they can get a handle on it, it’s a story that people are eager to hear.”