Why Have Mainstream Media Neglected the Recession's Human Costs?

When it comes to the media, we hear a lot of talk about a conservative-liberal divide, or the thoroughly discredited idea of a liberal bias. But the divide worth paying attention to is between those who are represented (and listened to) in media coverage, and those who aren't--namely the powerful, and then everyone else.

A revealing new study on media coverage of the economic crisis--released Monday by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)--shows that little attention has been paid to how the worst collapse since the Great Depression impacted ordinary Americans. PEJ examined 9,950 stories that ran between February 1 and August 31 on television, radio, cable, newspapers and online. It found that a whopping 38 percent were focused on three topics--the banking industry and its bailout (15 percent), the stimulus package (14 percent), and the US auto industry (9 percent). In contrast, housing, including the subprime crisis, mustered only 6 percent of the news coverage, as did unemployment. (The PEJ study points out that "The percentage of Americans who were looking for but unable to find work actually outpaced the attention the subject received in the press.") Reporting on "retail sales, food prices, the impact of the crisis on Social Security and Medicare, its effect on education and the implications for health care combined accounted for just over 2 percent of all the economic coverage."

There was also a significant geographical bias to the coverage. Seventy-six percent of the stories were focused on either New York (44 percent) or DC (32 percent). Even coverage of the auto industry--only one-sixth of those stories came from Detroit, two-thirds from New York or DC! And stories on labor issues and worker layoffs--the people most severely affected--accounted for less than 1 percent of stories on the auto industry.

Finally, the report points out which voices the media was listening to. Government officials drove nearly one-third of the stories, business leaders just over one-fifth. Ordinary citizens and union workers combined acted as the catalyst for only 2 percent of the stories about the economy, PEJ writes.

If we were a vibrant democracy we would hear a fuller range of people's voices--not just the angriest raging at town hall meetings, but the quiet (or sometimes not so quiet) despair of the jobless, or those losing their homes, or unable to pay the bills, or choosing between food and medicine. The Nation has continued to keep a focus on these voices and others, just as it has throughout its 144 years.

Some of the articles that come to mind are Kai Wright's cover story on the mortgage crisis in which he writes, "We hear a lot about the big picture of the mortgage crisis. But [Veronica and George Gallon] reveal what it looks like in the micro." Naomi Klein looks at grassroots uprisings around the world against contemporary deregulated capitalism, and her article co-written with Avi Lewis focuses on direct action against layoffs by workers. John Nichols wrote an excellent piece on the impact of the crisis on state and local government budgets and services, and another on autoworkers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. William Greider wrote about the potential impact of the crisis on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

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