On the Social Security Battlefront

Reporters and their sources

For months, Campaign Desk has observed that reporters covering health reform have used the same sources over and over. Now that the pols and some advocacy groups have resurrected Social Security as a target for political discussion, the same source problem shows up once again.

Evidence for this comes from a preliminary study by the Communications Consortium Media Center, a Washington public interest group that’s supported by foundations to help non-profits hone their media skills. The Center examined media coverage of Social Security reform and an entitlement commission (created today by a presidential executive order) in the ten largest U.S. newspapers over the past two years, and found an absence of voices from beyond the Beltway. What a surprise, given what we’ve seen on health care!

“Most of the sources for reports are inside the Beltway policy experts and quoted time after time again,” said the group’s executive vice president, Phil Sparks. “That leads to a story line focusing on the same themes and frames.” And the current theme is that new policies for Social Security are integral to any deficit reduction strategy.

Sparks did the study on a pro bono basis for Social Security Works, a coalition being built by the program’s supporters—ones you might say are on the liberal side of the issue who have a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. (Full disclosure: Atlantic Philanthropies is a donor to CJR.) While it looked at coverage in only ten newspapers using limited search terms (the word Medicare was not included), the 100 stories the Center examined indicate the kind of reporting journalists are doing, and suggest the need for beefing up the list of sources they call.

When it came to Social Security reform, the press most often quoted President Obama, government officials and policymakers favoring reform, and a few economists like Glenn Hubbard, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. On the issue of the entitlement commission, Sparks said the press quoted Obama, David Walker, president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (also a CJR funder), as well as various opponents and proponents of setting up a commission.

Sparks also noted that the reform measures suggested in the news accounts included benefit reductions or means testing for higher income Social Security recipients, raising the ceiling on payroll tax deductions, and a new formula for annual cost-of-living adjustments for people already receiving benefits.

What was missing? The voices of beneficiaries, organizations representing seniors, and policymakers and academics who take a different view of what is meant by reform. Sparks’s sample showed virtually no coverage of benefit gaps or the problems that many recipients, particularly women, have in living on the benefits they do receive. Nor did they look at other aspects of the program, such as survivor’s and disability benefits.

Seems to us that presenting some of the basics about how the program actually works would give much-needed context to the predictable gloom and doom Social Security stories that will tumble out of Washington in the next several months. Sparks’s quick study should prompt reporters and editors on this beat to think for a moment about how they can cover this story well, in a way that every American can understand.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.