Information and Democracy

The rise of online and social media news has led to heightened concerns about the accuracy of media coverage. This has been especially true following the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections. Concerns about the accuracy of media are not new, however – they have been around for as long as society has valued the need for informed citizens. Indeed, these concerns are evident as early as Plato’s Republic and in the Federalist Papers, and they continue in nearly every policy debate in the post-war era. Scholars, journalists, and citizens alike have questioned the accuracy of media coverage of the Gulf War, the War on Terror, the Affordable Care Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, welfare policy, crime policy, Supreme Court decisions, and much, much more. That said, current anxieties about media accuracy are also growing beyond this historical context, fueled by a novel technological environment that facilitates targeted and user-disseminated content.

It is not all that surprising, then, that we find trust in media at an all-time low. This may be driven in part by polarization in the sources that partisans use to learn about national politics. But are media truly leading citizens away from the truth? Or does the highly politicized climate in the U.S. just make it feel as so? There is ample evidence that Americans respond, often sensibly, to government decisions and policy change. And there clearly are media sources that are more accurate, and those that are not, depending on topic or policy domain. 

We have developed large-scale automated content-analytic methods allowing us to capture both the volume and accuracy of news coverage of policy. This approach is outlined in detail in Information and Democracy (Cambridge University Press), and this website provides an easily interpretable measures that distinguish more and less accurate media coverage, from the 1990s to the present, across a broad range of media outlets and policy areas. 

Relying on content drawn from full-text news indices alongside trends in budgetary policy from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we have produced estimates of the volume and accuracy across dozens of newspapers and all major US television networks. We have done so for five policy domains: defense, welfare, health, education, and environmental policies. And this site provides a simple interface to explore the nature and quality of the news content Americans consume.

Our aim is to offer a straightforward resource for those interested in media accuracy, not focused only on recent political events but on rather actions taken over many decades by the federal government. (We do not consider actions taken by state and local governments, which may be of special relevance to newspaper coverage; see our Explainer for a discussion of this and number of other issues in the construction and interpretation of our measures.) We hope that these data will enhance our understanding of media coverage in both the past and present, facilitate further research on the subject, both substantive and methodological, and stimulate discussion amongst practitioners and audiences about the role that accurate media play in the successful functioning of representative democracy.