Echo-nomics

The hottest young economist in America studies the media, not monetary policy

April 18, 2014
April 18, 2014

The John Bates Clark Medal is usually awarded to economists studying rather traditional subjects—tax policy researchers and development experts, for example—but not the latest recipient, Matthew Gentzkow.

The American Economic Association, which awards the prize to the “American economist under the age of forty who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge,” calls Gentzkow part of a “new generation” of economists, because of his work using data-driven analysis to study media and how it affects the way we think.

One of Gentzkow’s studies, with co-author Jesse Shapiro, examined political bias in the news media and concluded that reader demand, not newspaper owners, were driving political slant. Another looked at 300,000 high school students’ test scores, dating back decades, to conclude that watching television didn’t actually have a negative effect on intelligence.

Ideological segregation online and offline,” also with Shapiro, studied whether internet media consumption is exacerbating America’s political divide, using internet browsing data. It concluded that the “echo chamber” effect of the internet isn’t actually that pervasive—online news consumers from the far right or left are just as likely to view mainstream media news as other internet users, although there is more segregation than among offline news consumers.

Gentzkow, 38, earned his master’s and PhD in economics at Harvard University, but wasn’t an early entry into the field—he studied sociology as an undergraduate and started a theater company in Maine.

In the past, media was not part of economic study, he told The New York Times, because the data and analysis methods the internet provides were not available. “This work would have been impossible 20 years ago,” he said. “The set of questions that can be answered using economic methods has exploded,” he said.

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