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.”
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’