Print Media Support for Social Welfare Programs: The View from the Opinion Pages of the Elite Press
This paper examines the framing of social welfare programs in the opinion pages of two major elite newspapers that research shows are widely read by U.S. policymakers. In particular, it focuses on level of attention (salience) and level of support. The data consist of all editorials, op-ed columns, and letters to the editor dealing substantively with social welfare programs or issues that appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post from January 1, 1990, through December 31, 1995 (N=1,824). Results from reading and coding of each article show that the salience of social welfare programs as a whole remained stable over the period studied but that the salience of individual programs changed markedly from year to year, primarily in response to political events. From 1990 through 1994, support was strongly positive, with the majority of editorial, op-ed columns and letters to the editor calling for increases in spending on benefits. In 1995, fewer articles called for increases in social welfare programs, and more advocated either decreases to or maintenance in program scope and spending. This change was found to be primarily a defensive response to social welfare program cuts proposed by the Republicans' Contract With America. Thus, overall, we conclude that in the six years studied, the opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post were highly supportive of American social welfare programs. The task that awaits future research is an examination of the influence, if any, that this framing of social welfare programs had on the opinions and actions of policymakers, government bureaucrats, and the general public.
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