May 1 2004

Special Report: Think Tank Coverage

More attention, but not more balance

Even as media reliance on think tanks increased in 2003, the slant in coverage toward conservative groups and away from progressives held steady. While mainstream media citations of the top 25 think tanks increased 13 percent from 2002 to 2003, right-leaning institutions received 47 percent of last year’s citations, with centrists getting 39 percent and 13 percent going to groups that leaned to the left.

The centrist Brookings Institution was once again the most widely quoted think tank, garnering almost one-sixth of total citations. Another centrist group, the Council on Foreign Relations, maintained the second spot. The Heritage Foundation, in third place, was the most widely quoted conservative think tank. The progressive Economic Policy Institute was the seventh-most-cited think tank, the best showing by a left-leaning institution since the survey started in 1995.

The trend since the September 11 attacks has been an increase in media citations for foreign policy think tanks. With a few exceptions, conservative and centrist foreign policy groups logged impressive gains in mainstream exposure in 2003. Even the left-leaning Center for Defense Information (CDI) had a marked increase in attention, though this was attributable almost entirely to newspaper coverage; CDI was largely invisible in the radio and television transcripts, with only 95 citations.

CDI’s lack of visibility on radio and television reflected a general trend. Conservative think tanks, buoyed by their appearances on cable news outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC, received 52 percent of electronic citations. Centrists garnered 37 percent of citations in the electronic media, while progressives received only 11 percent of such mentions.

Last year’s study concluded by noting that anti-war voices were largely marginalized during times of crisis, and that there would be every reason to believe that the trends we have observed in the last two think tank studies would continue. That prediction came to pass. Economic-based think tanks may increase in exposure as the economy promises to be a major election year issue. While an election year might lead to greater exposure for certain progressive think tanks, such as the Center for Public Integrity or the Economic Policy Institute, there is still every reason to believe that the center/right domination of the think tank continuum will continue.

Michael Dolny, Ph.D., was recently an organizer for the Kucinich for President campaign. He can be reached at

Source: Nexis database on major newspaper and radio and TV transcripts.

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding. The numbers for the Heritage Foundation were adjusted to correct for false positives. Approximately 15 percent of the time in 2003 and 20 percent of the time in 2002, the words “heritage foundation” appeared in Nexis without referring to the Washington-based think tank.