Marked Negativism

February 17, 2006 • Media Economics • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 17, 2006

The influence of media reports on the economic climate
A postdoctoral thesis focusing on the influence of media on the economic climate finds a problematic tendency of TV reports to paint a decidedly negative picture of the overall economy, thus prompting people to perceive it as more negative than it actually is.

Among areas painfully neglected by communication research, economic journalism still takes centre stage. Whereas the influence of economic policies on the media and their markets has been the focus of numerous studies, the opposite causal direction – “how media-related information shapes economic activities,” in other words, how “the media cover the general economy and what kind of causes and effects this entails” has to a great extent been neglected. Communication researcher Lutz M. Hagen has partially filled that gap.

«Socio-optical illusion»

The key finding of this study is not all that surprising. Hagen has found that the media strongly influence the general public perception of the overall economy. Media coverage, therefore, “directly affects the economic climate” and even people’s “outlook on their own, individual economic situation”. The more specific conclusions of the study are even more interesting, such as the “marked negativism” that characterises TV-coverage of the economy – something that in light of the media’s generally strong effect on the economic climate seems particularly problematic. This causal connection, Hagen explains, creates a “socio-optical illusion” that makes the public perceive “the overall economy as systematically distorted towards the negative”.

Hagen continues by highlighting the strong influence German tabloid Bild has on the economic climate in the country that “has been revealed in a number of ways”. Those still believing that economic coverage does not count among the central functions of the yellow press might be in for a surprise: in 3 out of 4 issues, the German print medium with the largest circulation publishes at least one article on economic affairs, and “the number of title blocks targeting the general situation of the German economy is a mere 25 per cent lower than that of renowned business publication “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.

Outdated data

No matter how sophisticated Hagen’s study might be in terms of methodology, how subtle his line of argument, media practitioners and interested experts with a background in economics and finances can only make limited use of the data therein as the empirical part of the study dates back to 1992-1997. This is an awfully long time given the tremendous changes affecting today’s media landscape, as well as the fact that by now the Internet has become the new leading medium in the area of financial communication. As an example, now the economic coverage of “Tagesschau”, the key news programme of Germany’s national broadcaster ARD – considered rather modest in scope and depth already in Hagen’s study – has become even more diluted due to that broadcaster’s increasingly marked focus on sports and entertainment.

More interesting because of the topicality are the attempts of media research institute Medien-Tenor at predicting fluctuations based on content analyses of current economic reports of the key media, of the Ifo Business Climate Index. So far, the institute has been mostly successful in correlating the two, thus making it seem likely that Hagen’s key findings probably still hold true. For despite all the changes the media has undergone in the last few years, one thing has not changed at all, and that is their power to influence people’s perception of the overall economy – with the corresponding effects on people’s economic activities.

Lutz M. Hagen: Konjunkturnachrichten, Konjunkturklima und Konjunktur. Herbert-von-Halem-Verlag, Köln 2005 (432 pages)

Matthias Vollbracht: Ifo-Prognose dank Agenda-Setting, in: Medien-Tenor, 12. Jg./ 2005, Nr. 149, pp. 116-118.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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