The census report news coverage shows how the media shapes our beliefs by deciding what to cover.

By vote of news coverage, one of the secondary news stories today is the release yesterday of the “5-Year American Community” study by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The way that the news media covered the news is an interesting case study on how the media sifts through facts and decides what’s important and what’s not.

Most news media remain local in orientation, so it’s only natural that most of the stories on the new census report focus on what happened locally.  Some examples include The Detroit Free Press, Deseret News, Newark Star-Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Birmingham News,  and even the usually national-looking Washington Post.

Many focused on local segregation patterns in reaction to a Brookings Institute study that said that the census report showed that the U.S. was less segregated than expected.  Segregation therefore became a focal point for much but not all of the local coverage.  Among national media, only USA Today took the Brookings bait, declaring in its analysis of the census report that there was still a surprising amount of segregation across the country.  Brookings leans left and USA Today is slightly left of center so it’s not surprising that implicit in both the report and the “rebuttal” is the idea that segregation is a bad thing (and I agree that segregation is bad).

The New York Times took another tack in attempting to define the big picture takeaway from the new census findings—the 10 words and one idea that everyone will remember.

Before analyzing the Times enormous three-page coverage of the census report, let’s take a look at what’s in the report.  The U.S. Census Bureau makes that easy in its 10+ page news release about the voluminous report.

The report provides sample topics by which anyone can pull information for 670,000 distinct geographic areas across the nation.  Here are the sample topics:

  • Poverty
  • Value of housing
  • Travel time to work
  • Married couples with children under 18
  • Educational levels
  • Spanish speakers
  • Household income
  • Foreign-born

That’s a lot of data the two New York Times reporters who wrote the article and their researchers must have sifted through.

The Times article consists of one long column on the first page of national news, followed by two complete pages, one of which continues the national story and the other of which focuses on the New York metropolitan area.

The Times created charts for three trends it uncovered—let’s call them three finalists for “news story we remember.”  The lion’s share of the Times coverage revolved around one of these three trends, including headline, first paragraph and about half of the succeeding paragraphs.  The other two trends got very brief mentions.

Here are the three trends, and then you try to guess which one the Times covered extensively, the one therefore proposed as the key fact to remember:

  1. Household incomes fell in three-quarters of all counties
  2. The suburbs have seen an explosion in the population of foreign-born
  3. Most of the wealth remains in cities

Now I’ve seen other studies and news items addressing all three of these trends over the past few years, so none is a total “gee whiz.”

So am I living in some weird alternate reality or did everyone else think that the shrinkage of household income was the main story? With unemployment dancing around 10% and daily reports of retirement financial woes, how could it not be?

But it wasn’t for the Times.  The Times put virtually all its reportorial muscle into reporting the increase in the population of foreign born living in the suburbs.  Only, the Times doesn’t call them “foreign-born” as the Census Bureau does.  It calls them “immigrants.”

And the headline writer couldn’t even get the headline right: Immigrants Make Paths to Suburbia, Not Cities.

That’s not what the data or the article say, though:  The data and article focus on the fact that the population of immigrants in the suburbs has grown exponentially.  That does not mean that the new immigrants are coming from outside the U.S., as the words “immigrants make paths to suburbia, not cities” suggests, implies and explicitly states.  The history of all immigration in this country would suggest that many foreign-born move first to cities and then from there to suburbs.

I’m not going to question why the Times focused on “immigration” instead of shrinking incomes, but in tomorrow’s blog entry I want to explore what the impact of that decision could have on the American people and our national dialogue on critical issues.


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