Mar 1 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Think Tank

Third year in a row of declining citations

The 25 most media-prominent think tanks were cited 17 percent less in 2007 than they were the year before, FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations found. The decline was felt across the board among centrist, conservative and progressive think tanks.

Once again, the centrist Brookings Institution garnered the most citations, with the general decline affecting them less than the average think tank. They accounted for 16 percent of all citations counted, with almost twice as many as the next-most-frequently cited think tank, the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, three conservative groups, had the third, fourth and fifth spots on the 2007 list.

The overall ideological breakdown was the same in 2006 and 2007: 47 percent of citations went to centrist think tanks, 37 percent to conservative or right-leaning think tanks, and 16 percent to progressive or left-leaning think tanks. The Center for American Progress was the highest-finishing left-leaning think tank, finishing eighth with 673 citations. The center-left group lost only 2 percent off of its 2006 total.

FAIR’s survey counts mentions of think tanks in media reports indexed by the Nexis database; the particular Nexis files looked at in this survey differed from previous years. We removed foreign newspapers from the major newspaper index to better identify how U.S. media use think tanks. We also narrowed the electronic transcripts to the broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC; the cable channels Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC; and publicly funded PBS and NPR. As a result, the raw numbers are much smaller than in previous versions of the survey.

However, the decline in think tank citations was not due to the new methodology, which was used to calculate citations for both 2007 and 2006. Using the former methodology, the survey found declines in the two previous surveys (see Extra!, 5-6/06, 3-4/07).

The decline was most precipitous among citations in major newspapers (down 19 percent) as opposed to electronic transcripts (down 6 percent). Overall, there were 14,790 citations in 2007 versus 17,837 in 2006.

There is no ready explanation for the drop. Although it was an off-year for national elections, that has not usually resulted in a decline in think tank citations. There was certainly no shortage of issues worth discussing: Iraq, torture, the presidential prospects in 2008, a volatile stock market.

Nor does there seem to be much pattern to the decline. In previous years, think tanks predominately concerned with foreign affairs would rise as a group, suggesting the salience of Iraq as an issue. However, this year, we see drops in the leading think tanks dealing with foreign affairs (Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND Corporation) but increases in some of the second-tier think tanks (Wilson Center, Carnegie Endowment) and smaller decreases in other think tanks dealing with international issues (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Inter-American Dialogue). This suggests that media are allowing other centrist and conservative voices into the arena without broadening the debate to include other progressive think tanks with a foreign policy specialization.

The decline in think tank visibility is not necessarily a bad thing. Past surveys (Extra!, 5-6/98) have indicated that think tank experts are rarely given an ideological label to put their claims in context. Given that FAIR’s surveys have consistently found that these supposedly detached experts actually tilt toward the center-right, fewer of them spinning and shaping news coverage may be a net plus for media transparency, if not diversity.


FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations in mainstream media looks at a sample based on lists of think tanks generated by political observers, notably the National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA), Project Vote Smart and the University of Michigan library Political Science Resources list. Because the purpose of the survey is to study the media’s use of experts to provide context for news events, we remove from the sample those groups that primarily appear in news reports in other roles, such as lobbyists, promoters of cultural events, or generators of statistics, such as the Conference Board or the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Rankings are based on the number of stories that refer to the groups in the sample in the Nexis databases of U.S.-based major newspaper articles and radio and TV transcript databases. The numbers for 2006 are based on a new sampling of the database for that year, and may differ from the numbers in last year’s survey because of changes both in the database and in the particular files searched.

The political orientation of think tanks is based on FAIR’s evaluation of each think tank’s published work, its leading personnel and media comments.

The totals for some groups are corrected for false positives. Approximately 32 percent of the time in 2007 and 25 percent in 2006, the words “heritage foundation” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Washington-based think tank; the figures in our chart are adjusted to correct for this. Similarly, 13 percent of both 2007 and 2006 occurrences of the words “carter center” in Nexis did not refer to the Atlanta-based think tank, and 4 percent of 2007 and 3 percent of 2006 occurrences of “center for politics” did not refer to the Virginia-based think tank.

chart of think tank citations in 2006/7