Whose Economy Do We Measure?

What can be done about persistent malfunctions of an essential institution? An informed citizenry is critical to democracy–and it’s undermined by our fragmented and inadequate media environment.

I’ve posted numerous times about the multiple ways in which the proliferation of media sites on the Internet have encouraged readers to indulge in confirmation bias–if you really, really want to believe in X, a google search will take you to “journalism” that confirms the existence and accuracy of “X.” That same fragmentation practically invites propaganda from domestic and foreign sources that are increasingly adept at confusion, misdirection and out-and-out lies.

All of the problems aren’t the result of intentional misrepresentation, either. A recent academic study pointed to a feature of contemporary journalism that I had not previously considered. Titled “Whose News? Class-Based Economic Reporting in the United States,” the research was a “deep dive” into economic reporting in the United States.

The abstract explained the nature of the inquiry and the research conclusions.

There is substantial evidence that voters’ choices are shaped by assessments of the state of the economy and that these assessments, in turn, are influenced by the news. But how does the economic news track the welfare of different income groups in an era of rising inequality? Whose economy does the news cover? Drawing on a large new dataset of US news content, we demonstrate that the tone of the economic news strongly and disproportionately tracks the fortunes of the richest households, with little sensitivity to income changes among the non-rich. Further, we present evidence that this pro-rich bias emerges not from pro-rich journalistic preferences but, rather, from the interaction of the media’s focus on economic aggregates with structural features of the relationship between economic growth and distribution. The findings yield a novel explanation of distributionally perverse electoral patterns and demonstrate how distributional biases in the economy condition economic accountability.

The researchers recognized the powerful role played by news media in forming citizens’ beliefs about the performance of government, and especially about the state of the economy.  (Economic performance is an area in which they point out that direct experience is generally of “limited relevance”). Assessments of the economy are particularly important to voters’ electoral choices.  This particular study was concerned with a question that has received very limited scholarly attention: whose material welfare the economic news reflects. In other words, “how responsive is economic reporting to developments affecting different income groups? When voters turn to the news media for an assessment of economic performance, does the signal that they receive reflect the fortunes of most households or of those located at particular points in the income distribution—whether the middle, the bottom, or the top?”

We argue in this paper that the economic news in the United States has, over the last 40 years, painted a portrait of the economy that strongly and disproportionately tracks the welfare of the very rich. Analyzing a vast, original dataset of news articles in 32 high-circulation US newspapers over this period, we uncover clear evidence that reporting on the US economy is descriptively class-biased. Footnote1 Specifically, the evaluative content of economic news becomes more positive (negative) in periods in which the incomes of the very rich grow (shrink) and is largely uncorrelated with change in the incomes of less well-off Americans, once growth in incomes at the top is taken into account. Put simply, good economic news tracks, above all, the fortunes of the most affluent.

The research attributes this phenomenon in large part to the fact that government and media track economic performance in the aggregate–and averages, as we know, can be misleading. (If you average Bill Gates wealth with that of a fast-food worker, you are going to get a result that is pretty meaningless–or, as the paper puts it, class-biased economic news “tracks the ups and downs of the business cycle in the context of an economy that distributes income growth in powerfully class-biased ways.”)

The results suggest an explanation, for instance, of why incumbents presiding over sharp increases in economic inequality in the United States have not been penalized at the ballot box.

The study has particular relevance to the current disconnect between voters’ impressions about economic performance and the data that tracks that performance. Data from a variety of sources suggests that working class folks have been doing considerably better during the Biden Administration than they were previously, and that most are unaware of that fact due to the relative lack of economic reporting focused on wage-earners or on the policy changes that have begun reducing the gap between the rich and the rest.

As the paper points out, journalists need to focus more on “distributional dynamics.”


  1. What I see:
    #1. Good economic news comes out
    #2. TV Reporter talks with Jane six Pack at the grocery store or Joe Six Pack at the Gas Station. Joe and Jane bitch about prices.
    Nothing good ever comes out without the media folks pissing all over it.

  2. As a journalism major, let me assure you that part of the problem is journalists not understanding math; Specifically, the difference between mean, median, and mode.

    They definitely don’t think about the fact that “average” is meaningless when 1 group loses 10k per year and another gains 10M per year, is always reported as people are making more money a year because the mean changed.

  3. Google “X” and find sources within “X” to further Google. An example; I Googled my Indiana Public Retirement System (INPRS) for information regarding the loss of our 13th Check which lowered our annual retirement income. I found the Board of Directors are young Republicans who simply want to stop FICA from being deducted from their paychecks. The 2018 switch of our check disbursement was transferred to a New York City based bank, State Street Retirement Services, rather than local banks continuing the service. We were also required to reregister if we wanted to continue receiving our retirement but no explanation for the change or the requirement. We also lost the ability to know information regarding the PERF budget amount. Our disbursement has now been changed again to another New York City bank (NYC Merritt I think) with again no information as to why the change or our budget status. Control of our PERF retirement remains in the hands of Indiana House and Senate Republicans living in “the Now” (a Charles Manson term) of lowering taxes and increasing their paycheck amounts. In this Republican state, the majority of PERF retirees are now elderly and or disabled Republicans being short-changed by younger Republicans.

    Do research beyond the headlines; why did the House include ending China’s control of TikTok here in their military aid to Ukraine and again to Israel? And to quote Sheila’s past comment of “They no longer even try to hide it.” factor in passing bills containing extraneous demands to fund vital causes and issues…such as stopping Russia, China, Iran, et al.

    “The researchers recognized the powerful role played by news media in forming citizens’ beliefs about the performance of government, and especially about the state of the economy.” So far, the media in Indiana has shown no interest in the performance of state government and the state of its retirement economics for thousands of retirees here who support the economics of Indiana.

  4. I agree with Dirk, it’s the math. Everything is reported in averages. The data are there, but you need to understand the math to be able to drill down into the details. A friend and fellow nerd, Merrill Benson was talking about the average life span in the good old “US of A” one day. He said that we weren’t getting old people to live longer. What we had done is lowered infant mortality by huge numbers. The fewer people who die before the age of two, the more rapidly the average life span grows. I should note that this has now begun to reverse, and will continue until we get a decent universal healthcare system.

  5. Most of the journalists employed by newspapers and other legacy media entities today are just stenographers. They receive press releases and chop them up to write articles. Also, those with experience have been laid off long ago to cut costs. Thus, the national fillers by many news agencies.

    In Indy, the task of providing critical coverage of the government is daunting. Even the slightest attempt to hold them accountable can result in your questions being ignored or shunned from the Republican statehouse, thereby depriving you of valuable interviews.

    The journalist won’t even question an economics professor who passes along a local analysis of the economy. Therefore, when they present the outcomes, we compare them to our world, and there is a disconnect. What is being reported doesn’t jive with our reality. If you watch the news or read the newspapers, it says we should be feeling great, but the reality is rent and energy costs are crushing younger and older generations on low and fixed incomes, not to mention the cost of a new car.

    By the way, Victoria Spartz, a Ukrainian-born Indiana State Representative, did not support the recent military aid package, which includes another $61 billion for Ukraine. She’s getting hammered on X from multiple directions. While the Republicans were divided, every single Democrat voted in favor. There is no opposition to war, and it appears that Trump/Johnson pulled a fast one on the MAGA right.

    I focus on several direct sources on X that analyze our economy with years of inside experience—experts. They don’t have editors who edit/shape the media’s printed stories.

  6. It was never put in writing, but with hindsight it seemed to me that one of Trump’s major policy goals was to make sure the stock market did well. I’ve always said that the stock market is not the economy. A high flying stock market only really benefits maybe the top 20% of the richest people. All the reporting in the Trump years focused on this while we had the typical sluggish low wage growth especially at the bottom. Remember when everyone was talking about raising the minimum wage to $15.00 during the Trump years? All of that talk has disappeared because in the last four years because nobody can even get an employee in the door if they don’t offer that.

    There are real changes happening, especially at the low end of economy right now. I cheer raising corporate taxes and taxes on the upper income people, but THE dysfunctional party in congress is still selling trickle down economics and the media still keeps reporting about it like failure to feed a discredited theory is a real failure. I still don’t understand why so many “conservative” voters continue to believe politicians that tell them that making rich people richer is going to help them when there is 40 years of evidence against this idea. I guess you need to cover up that inconvenient truth with the noise of constant culture wars.

  7. JoAnn, (this is sarcasm) but you still have your guns and you can now carry them in public. Women in your family may have to travel out of state because potential fetus is more important than the woman’s health. Your public bathrooms won’t have the wrong people peeing in them. Your local grocery store will always have plastic bags in Indiana. etc… etc…

  8. “Fact” (to my knowledge – never sure what to believe) – 90% of the value of the stock market is owned by the top 10% in wealth. Market is booming, rich are getting richer…that is reported.

  9. I have long watched the political choice of measurement of the economy, especially the average versus the median, to make the case for the wonders such politicians have managed to sell to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe in spite of efforts of those tax-raising “socialists” who falsely identify themselves as Democrats. With lots of help from the Supreme Court in re unlimited donorship the superrich and their Republican lackeys have been successful in maintaining and even expanding the status quo. Take the trillions given to the superrich by the Trump/Ryan tax giveaway of December, 2017, for instance; the month before Democrats were scheduled to take over the House. Sans any setoff all such trillions went to a whopping increase of our national debt, which our unborn grandchildren will have to pay (speaking of taxation without representation).

    Republican tax-writers on the Ways and Means Committee, with the “help” of ALEC and other corporate counsel, skillfully fabricated the measuring stick for such largesse and corporate-owned means of communication (Fox et al.) dutifully reported the trickle down effect of the theft of public funds – in broad daylight – and Trump if elected has promised another such gift or gifts to those who support his election. Make that great-great grandchildren. . .

    So? So for this and many other good reasons, VOTE BLUE come November!

    To do: VOTE!

  10. We are each the center of our own world and it is only natural that individuals judge the health of the economy according to how it impacts them personally. That said, I think there is a tendency towards pessimism when imagining our own financial status, i.e. we worry about our financial future. In this country, at least, there is a tendency to think that what we have is never enough. So good economic news has that built in bias to overcome.

  11. Posted late yesterday.

    Kathy M,

    We are not Common Good. We are CommonGoodGoverning. Send me a note via Linked In or Facebook and I would be glad to tell you more about us and/or send you our newsletter. We do not have a website.

  12. It’s the math, it’s the science, it’s the research, it’s the entertainment, it’s the writing.

    We track the efficiency of redistributing wealth upwards but ignore the significant discrepancy in knowledge distribution.

    What humans have learned in the last few decades is known by only a few.

    Will AI save us? Education hasn’t.

  13. Pete,

    You nailed it: critical thinking, visual literacy, media literacy, data literacy, civics…ALL MIA in today’s education. Why? Dumb ’em down and they’ll believe anything!

  14. LL, I fault the limits of human curiosity and imagination more than our formal education system. Parents create curious children, teachers play a much more limited role.

    Many parents believe themselves making more money is the most important thing rather than the least.

    The most important thing for parents is the next generation, not theirs.

  15. So, this is an interesting idea – and I’m not saying Sheila is wrong – but I take issue with “All of the problems aren’t the result of intentional misrepresentation…”

    I think the overwhelming majority is intentional misrepresentation. When inflation started, seemingly legitimate economists were tripping over each other to blame Biden – when in fact much of it was fueled by supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine. The spending that they were going on about hadn’t even STARTED to get into the pipeline. In fact most of those spending bills were for a 10 year period. These were op-ed pieces in the paper, online, etc.

    There is an echo chamber – and for sure there’s a messaging machine that focus grouping these kinds of messages and then getting the message out. There’s a massive web of bogus “news” sites that are spreading misinformation, both for clickbait and for political purposes.

  16. Right on cue this afternoon:

    “As we’ve frequently reported in the past, Bloomberg News has spent the better part of the last decade attempting to brainwash the public into believing that the head of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, is a respected statesman of Wall Street. (See here, here, and here.) In reality, JPMorgan Chase has admitted to an unprecedented five criminal felony counts with Dimon at the helm and paid fines in the tens of billions of dollars for an additional crime wave that rivals an organized crime family.”


  17. Pete,

    Great add: “Parents create curious children, teachers play a much more limited role.” So where are parents and their kids? On screens….

  18. It’s very unfortunate that the covid-related inflation has masked the gains made by workers during the Biden presidency. Most people honestly don’t recognize that things have improved there, for the first time in decades. Some of them would _never_ agree that their fortunes increased under a democratic president.

    In case you aren’t sure of mean, median and mode, here’s today’s brief lesson.
    Mean=average of a set of values (add up all values, divide by the number of values)
    Mode=most common value in a set of values (a set can have multiple modes)
    Median=middle value (or average of middle two values) when the set of values is ordered from smallest to largest (alternatively, there are the same number of values in the set below the median value as there are above the median value)

    e.g. a set of values = {5, 5, 10, 15, 65}
    Mean = (5+5+10+15+65)/5 = 20
    Mode = 5 (because there are two 5s in the set and only one of each other value)
    Median = 10 (there are two values below 10 and two values above 10; 10 is middle)

    Notice that if the 65 value was increased to 1,000,065, the median and mode wouldn’t change at all, but the mean would get much, much bigger (200,020).

  19. Wow. A discussion with a bit more pertinence than usual.
    But John H left out another, if not often used, average. Equal weighted average.
    The stock market and baseball use averages that are dominated by the biggest contributor. Batting averages are weighted by the number of at-bats. Those who play most have greater weight (total hits by the team/total at-bats). Equal weight would take the an average of the averages of each player including the bench sitters.
    Our national figures are heavily weighted by California, Texas, Florida, and New York. But the story is different if we take the sum of the averages for each state and divide by 50.
    Lecture ended. Except this is similar to the arguments over the Electoral College. One nation (total popular vote) vs a nation of sovereign states (a winner take all state by state) vs the Maine and Nebraska hybrid model (two electoral votes for each state plus popular vote in each Congressional district).

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