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Economy / ECONOMY

In Media Coverage, Deficit Eclipses Unemployment

Major newspapers shift focus from unemployment to the deficit, National Journal analysis shows.

photo of Clifford Marks
May 16, 2011

Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.

The analysis -- based on a measure of how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appear in major publications -- portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness.

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National Journal compiled counts of articles that mention one of the words in their headline or first sentences in the five largest newspapers in the country by print circulation -- a group that consists of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The data was taken over a period of roughly two years from April 15, 2009, to May 15, 2011, using LexisNexis, a news information service. The numbers exclude mentions that also used the words Europe(an) and Greece or Greek in an effort to focus solely on the domestic debate, though even with those included, the trend was not materially different.

Mentions of unemployment have been dwindling since they spiked to 154 in the month ending August 15, 2010; over the month ending Sunday, there were 63. Deficit mentions, meanwhile, surged up to 261 in the month ending December 15, 2010, when the leaders of President Obama's deficit commission released their final report. Mentions of the deficit remained higher after the commission's work wrapped up and as House Republicans and then the White House unveiled dueling proposals. In the month ending Sunday, there were 201 mentions.

To be sure, the decline in unemployment articles coincided with a one-half-percentage-point decrease in the headline unemployment rate as well as materially better payroll job growth, but the labor market remains fragile and the pace of its recovery far from sufficient.

More likely, the broadening gap demonstrates just how effective conservatives have been at changing the narrative of economic policy from one dominated by talk of fiscal stimulus to one now in lockstep with notions of fiscal austerity.

That major newspapers and other media outlets have covered the deficit with greater intensity in recent months should come as no surprise given the focus of the politicians and policymakers they cover. The declining mentions of unemployment are perhaps more surprising, as the issue remains salient for millions of Americans.

For more analysis from Clifford Marks, follow him on Twitter: @cliffmarks.

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