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Media (In)accuracy on Public Policy, 1980-2018

Sun, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Tenleytown West


Accurate media coverage of public affairs is a critical feature of democratic governance. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how large-scale representative democracy would work without sufficiently_ reliable and accurate media coverage of current affairs. It is of some significance, then, that we are in the midst of both public and scholarly debate about the nature and quality of media coverage in America. The current debate is fueled by selective exposure and motivated reasoning in an increasing high-choice media environment, alongside concerns about inaccurate information — or even mis-information — on a wide range of political and policy issues. The current climate in the US is in some ways relatively unique, but the availability of inaccurate information is not one of those ways. There has always been variation in the quality and accuracy of media coverage, over time, across issues, and across media outlets. The goal of the current paper is to provide some context for current events — to capture and compare the accuracy of media coverage on a range of policy domains, over the past 40 years. The project relies on automated content analysis of millions of news articles on defense, welfare, health, education, immigration and the environment, alongside budgetary and other measures of policy outcomes. Results highlight areas in which media coverage provides a remarkably accurate view of public policy and also areas in which media coverage has been systematically inaccurate — not just recently, but over an extended period of time.


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