The Semiotics of Social Security

THE SEMIOTICS OF SOCIAL SECURITY….A couple of days ago Jon Chait wrote that Republicans have won at least one great victory in the Social Security debate: they have forced the media to abandon the phrase “private accounts” in favor of “personal accounts”:

Late last year…Republican polls found that the public reacted far more favorably to “personal” accounts than to “private” accounts. So, overnight, they banished talk of “privatization” and “private accounts,” accusing any journalist who dared use the phrase that they themselves had used mere weeks before of insidious bias.

….Under this sustained barrage, the media have slowly retreated….In the weeks that have passed, “personal” seems to be overtaking “private,” like untreated weeds creeping over a garden. Politicians who dare use “oldspeak” risk censure, not just from Republicans but from the media themselves.

This got me curious. Like everyone, I’ve seen several examples of journalists cravenly knuckling under to the GOP’s version of Social Security political correctness ? see here, for example. But anecdotes aside, has the use of “private accounts” really declined in the past few months?

In an effort to prove that nothing is too trivial to be graphed, I decided to check. A Nexis search gave me some baseline results: between 1998-2003, 67% of all news stories that referred to privatization used the phrase “private accounts,” while 33% used the phrase “personal accounts.” How does this stack up to 2004 and 2005?

The chart on the right tells the story: as a percentage of all references to accounts of some kind, media use of the phrase “private accounts” actually rose throughout 2004, and then began to decline in 2005, presumably as the Republican linguistic onslaught began to gain steam. However, it really hasn’t declined very much and is still hovering around 70%, higher than both its 1998-2003 average and its 2004 average.

So: although Republicans have indeed been working with Orwellian thoroughness to influence the lexicography of Social Security, I’m happy to report that they’ve had only minor success. Overall, it looks to me like the media is writing about Social Security pretty much the same way it always has.

POSTSCRIPT FOR NEXIS GEEKS: I searched “US Newspapers and Wires” using the following search terms:

“social security” w/5 “private account”


“social security” w/5 “personal account”

That doesn’t catch every reference in every periodical, but I figure it’s probably a statistically random subset.