Study: Wall Street Journal has used ‘job killer’ almost 3 times as often as NY Times

University of Northern Iowa | PolitiFact | The Huffington Post

Peter Dreier and Christopher R. Martin’s study about the term “job killer” takes the news media to task for letting a partisan talking point slip by un-fact-checked:

The cavalier nature in which the “job killer” allegations are reported suggests that term is used loosely by those who oppose government regulations, and they can get away with it because news organizations fail to ask—or at least report – whether they have any evidence for the claims they make, and also fail to seek opposing views to counter the “job killer” claims.

Dreier and Martin write an engaging, thorough history of the term, from 1922 until its enshrinement in a Republican “framing strategy” in 1993. Since then, the academics write, it’s been smooth sailing for the term, which they find has little correlation with actual unemployment. They studied its use in four news organizations — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press — since 1984.

Some interesting tidbits emerge: The term’s almost always used toward policies, usually those favored by the Democratic Party, and rarely toward individuals. Democrats and labor union officials, they note, each accounted for about 5 percent of its uses. And the term’s use is higher during Democratic administrations. “In fact, the year 2011 was the biggest year yet for ‘job killer’ allegations,” they write. “Given that Republicans and business organizations were the leading sources of ‘job killer’ allegations, this political explanation makes sense.”

Between 1984 and 2011, the phrase “job killer” appeared in 381 stories from the four news organizations studied. “Associated Press news service had 115 stories, the New York Times 55 stories, the Wall Street Journal 151 stories, and the Washington Post 60 stories” using the phrase, according to the research.


Is there maybe some friction here, though, that needs further exploration? Dreier and Martin gush over PolitiFact, which is operated by Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, for fact-checking use of the term and finding it false: “The investigation by PolitiFact represents the best kind of work by journalists,” they write. I honestly don’t know if it would be possible for every political journalist to try to zap a talking point each time it’s used — the method we seem to have settled on tacitly is quoting people accurately and then doing longer takeouts on interesting linguistic tactics like “Democrat Party” and “Obamacare.”

It’s in that space between daily use and infrequent fact-checking, Dreier and Martin argue, that terms like “job-killer” take root, zeroing in on an AP story about a failed energy measure that said “Republicans slammed the bill as a ‘national energy tax’ and jobs killer.” The effect of the term, they assert, multiplies as the stories are replicated:

As the thousands of Associated Press clients used these stories, and then web sites and blogs (and the AP itself, again) excerpted or repeated them, the original unsubstantiated allegation was further multiplied. A Google search of the sentence’s beginning phrase ‘Republicans slammed the bill as a ‘national energy tax’ and jobs killer” – yielded at least 12,800 web publications.

But it seems to me that term was clearly attributed to the party that opposed the bill, quotes or no. Dreier and Martin say accepting the term is equivalent to endorsing it, which is the same argument you often hear about retweets. I’ve never run a political beat, but I’d have to imagine pushing back on every talking point a source used would leave me very little time for the nine blog posts, three front-page investigations and six exclusives my editor wanted from me every day. Dreier and Martin say the corrosive effect of terms like “job killer” “ultimately contribute to the deterioration of honest political discourse in the United States.” I’m just not sure that’s a problem journalism has the bandwidth to solve — an order to fact-check every instance of “job killer” seems to me to be a job-killer of its own.

Related: Journalists incredulous as Times public editor asks: ‘Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?’ | Keller: ‘I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit’ | Brisbane: ‘I ended up as a pinata on this one’

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Anonymous

    I’m the other coauthor of the study.  My short answer to quotidian is, “yes,” a reporter should vet that.  That’s what journalists are supposed to do — verify statements and allegations with the best available information. That’s what helps readers/viewers/listeners make sense of things. If someone says that, for example, increasing the minimum wage is a job killer, there are certainly plenty of examples and studies to cite that illustrate it’s not the case.  (If there are cases that illustrate it IS the case, let your audience know about that.) 

    Yes, I know journalists are busy and it’s tough to pin down these things. That shouldn’t be a reason to not verify, though.  We share an underlying ethic of what journalism should be with Kovach and Rosenstiel (see the Elements of Journalism) that 1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, 2. It’s first loyalty is to citizens, and 3. Its essence is a discipline of verification. 

    “Job killer” is not only a label, it suggests a real consequence (unlike a label like “bad policy.”)  “Bad” is a matter of value, and we’re not asking for journalists to address that.  But, we should be able to verify if that “x” policy does indeed kill jobs or not.  It’s not a matter of whether or not the authors like this term “job killers,” or whether or not anyone can make allegations. It’s a matter of should those allegations should be printed in a newspaper over and over without any verification.  Luntz’s point illustrates that it’s effective to say things over and over (particularly when they are never checked), because they’ll eventually sink in.

  • Anonymous

    But your standard of “verifying” what is accurate is unrealistic. If a politician says that high taxes or strict regulations imposed on coal are job killers, is a reporter supposed to vet that? Sure, he should let us hear from the advocate for those things, but a reporter is not an all-knowing referee. Thesse are matters of debate-which is why there are highly educated economists with vastly different opinions.  It’s the kind of statement of opinion and ideology that gets said every day by people on both sides.Should Democrats be vetted every time they use the word “invest” for “spend”? I often see it passively reported that Obama wants to “invest” in “green jobs,” whereas conservatives might consider that an abuse of the term, as well as object to the unquestioned use of “green jobs,” which generally has a positive connation even though there is much to debate about it. I’d have to see a similar study of some talking point from the left to believe there is anything unique about “job killers.” For instance, over the past year I’ve read and heard media people and Democratic politicians use the phrases “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” all the time as flat-out descriptors. They are using them as shorthand for “regular folks” and “the filthy rich,” and they use them as their own words, not as attributed as so many of the job killers examples are. Just by using them, they are implying an alliance with the Occupy mindset–which is why you never hear a conservative using them.

  • Anonymous

    But your standard of “verifying” what is accurate is unrealistic. If a politician says that high taxes or strict regulations imposed on coal are job killers, is a reporter supposed to vet that? Sure, he should let us hear from the advocate for those things, but a reporter is not an all-knowing referee. Thesse are matters of debate-which is why there are highly educated economists with vastly different opinions.  It’s the kind of statement of opinion and ideology that gets said every day by people on both sides.Should Democrats be vetted every time they use the word “invest” for “spend”? I often see it passively reported that Obama wants to “invest” in “green jobs,” whereas conservatives might consider that an abuse of the term, as well as object to the unquestioned use of “green jobs,” which generally has a positive connation even though there is much to debate about it. I’d have to see a similar study of some talking point from the left to believe there is anything unique about “job killers.” For instance, over the past year I’ve read and heard media people and Democratic politicians use the phrases “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” all the time as flat-out descriptors. They are using them as shorthand for “regular folks” and “the filthy rich,” and they use them as their own words, not as attributed as so many of the job killers examples are. Just by using them, they are implying an alliance with the Occupy mindset–which is why you never hear a conservative using them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=656715835 Andrew Beaujon

    Hi Peter, thanks for replying. My concern here is that the admonition to fact-check every utterance of a talking point is unrealistic, especially as reporters are required to churn out more content every day. Your point on the unattributed talking point is well-taken, but isn’t attributing it enough? Calling media people “stenographers” is a useful insult — one often proved true — but also sort of a talking point, I’d say! Here’s what I’d love to see: A study about how journalists spend their days. I suspect, but I’d love to see data either way, that time management plays a huge role in engendering the disappointment your study conveys. 

  • Anonymous

    I am coauthor of the “job killer” study.  The problem we uncovered is not that business groups or Republicans are using the accusation “job killer.” That is expected in the world of politics. The problem is that the four news media organizations we examined failed to balance these accusations with quotes from the other side — Democrats, advocacy groups (enviros, unions, consumer activists), and/or economists, or to seek to verify whether the accusations were accurate.  Even the much-maligned “he said/she said” formula would have been an improvement over what we discovered, which is that the media report “he said” without bothering to include a “she said.” Without doing at least one of those things (balance and/or verification), the accusation “job killer”  becomes conventional wisdom rather than a hotly-debated idea. As we note in the study, the media acted more like stenographers than truth-seekers.

  • Anonymous

    This report is deceptive and silly. If you read the introduction, you would think it was the news stories declaring things to be job killers, without attribution. Then you read the report and see that it’s almost always either a quote or an allegation from a person, group, or ideological bloc. Duh. Partisan allegations are reported all the time, from both sides. Just because these two guys don’t like the words “job killers” or Frank Luntz doesn’t make this some revelation of bias. I am sure you could take some favorite liberal phrase, like “pay their fair share,” and find it appearing at an “alarming rate.”