Literature Review: How local media coverage of elections can help turn out more and better informed voters
Media effects research clearly shows some level of correlation between media consumption and voter turnout. The premise of this literature review is that such findings can be used by media outlets to help shape their own campaign coverage, with the goal of improving issues knowledge among the general public and inspiring audiences members to vote in greater numbers.
The following review of scholarly work will start with research into media effects on audience behavior, especially related to political election coverage and voting patterns. A brief survey of the evolution of media effects concurrent with the development of new media platforms will also be presented.
The special role of local media will also be considered. Following a thread from credibility to the business viability of high-quality, issues-based news coverage, this section is especially relevant to media outlets that otherwise might be under financial pressures to deliver horse-race campaigns.
A review of literature correlating content, audience perception of media, and civic engagement will follow. This includes consideration of the younger voting demographic, along with studies that challenge traditional notions of the civic impact of political cynicism, and research into the role of polling in election coverage.
As this literature review is based largely on the assumption that quality news coverage engenders deeper audience understanding of political issues, definitions of and research into issues knowledge will be offered. The review also suggests potential for strategically timing different types of campaign coverage for maximum impact according to audiences’ decision-making patterns.
The literature review closes with consideration of audiences themselves, since all the media research in the world is meaningless without understanding the people for whom news is ostensibly designed and how they use it. This begins with an analysis of the timing of voting decisions and goes on to analyze some reasons that people disengage with election coverage. The review closes after the elections, so to speak, with research into improved voter turnout data.
Specific recommendations are offered for consideration about how media outlets may shift their approaches to election coverage to both meet business imperatives and help fulfill journalism’s potential contribution to democracy. Notes are also made on areas for further research that will help media find financial viability by answering this call for accountability to the public interest.
There is much research documenting the agenda-setting effect of media. Studies indicate that simply covering topics as news can introduce those topics into audience discourse, essentially getting people to talk about or care about what they otherwise may not be likely to. This effect was documented by Iyengar and Kinder’s 1987 book News That Matters, in which the authors presented evidence “that the media actually precedes public agenda” (Sparks 156). The book details an experiment in which people were exposed “to one of three different presentations of the news over a 4-day period. … (T)he researchers found that the experimental groups expressed greater concern about the issue that had been featured in their respective newscast.”
Level of media exposure is sometimes considered as a factor in media effects research, as it was for Fridkin, et all in their multi-methodological approach to understanding the impact of media coverage following the final presidential campaign debate of 2004. The group conducted a content analysis of television, internet and newspaper coverage in the immediate 24-hours following the debate (Fridkin et al.). They paired this with data from a public opinion survey and conducted an experiment tracking the “stability” of attitudes about the candidates among individuals who either were or were not exposed to the debate. A notable observation in the context of this literature review is that the extreme level of media saturation following a presidential debate gives very few citizens a chance to escape the common news agenda. In the case of the post-debate coverage, which these researchers concluded to be one-sided, favoring George W. Bush over John Kerry, more potential exists for media effects to influence public opinion. “Thus, theoretically, the coupling of intense media coverage and a one-sided story should influence citizens’ attitudes of the competing candidates” (31).
A case study of a 2004 poll by the Los Angeles Times illustrates the potential for a single news report to achieve high levels of exposure and, consequently, potentially influence public opinion. Hardy and Jamieson found that the specific wording of the poll and the subsequent report about it not only influenced the newspaper audience’s perceptions of the two presidential candidates at the time, George W. Bush and John Kerry. Coverage of the poll also swayed the conversation of the nation after being picked up by the Associated Press and carried nationwide (Hardy and Jamieson 731). Looking back on 2004, the authors analyzed data from a rolling cross-sectional survey from the National Annenberg Election Survey to document what others before them had long posited, “that poll results may prime character traits through attribute agenda-setting” (739-740). In this case, a small but “detectable change in the public’s assessment of both Bush’s stubbornness and his steady leadership” was found.
Conversely, consider the “spiral of silence” theory, which describes public opinion as an essential human trait, spanning societies and millennia, and exerting its own influence on both governments and individuals. In related research that spanned decades, Noelle-Neumann determined that humans’ social nature leads people to fear isolation, which is threatened by society in reaction to unpopular “opinions and behaviors” (Noelle-Neumann; Sparks 157). In response to popular public opinion, Noelle-Neumann asserts, citizens learn silence to avoid isolation. In her discussion of numerous tests of the spiral of silence theory by other researchers, Noelle-Neumann claims any failure of the theory has been tested without taking the tenor of the media into account. “Rather than refuting the theory of the spiral of silence, the ‘silent majority’ shows how strongly the mass media must be seen to influence the process of public opinion. The tenor of the media generates a threat of isolation.” (Noelle-Neumann 276)
It’s also important to remember that media effects are the product of a dynamic relationship with the media themselves. A review of related scholarly studies reveals a landscape of effects that is evolving as rapidly as new media platforms are being developed and appropriated for news.
Prior to the emergence of the Internet as a dominant media force, Simon suggested that newspapers, rather than television, radio or magazines, are related to the likelihood that a person will vote. Tapping data from the ongoing National Election Study survey during the 1992 presidential campaign, Simon created “an index that measured two dimensions: exposure to the medium (whether a person had received any campaign information from the medium) and intensity of use (how much attention the person paid to campaign stories in that medium)” (Simon 28). He then analyzed voter turnout patterns, taking into account demographics, political variables and the subject’s level of personal dialogue about the campaign. He found that “New News outlets,” an umbrella under which he included radio and television talk shows, exposed more people to campaign events than otherwise may have learned about them. However, this exposure did not result in increased rates of voter turnout among those citizens. “Only adults who said they followed the campaign through newspapers were found to be more likely to vote” (30).
Druckman developed his methodology in pursuit of evidence that newspaper audiences commanded more political knowledge than television viewers due to a fundamental difference in the depth of coverage that each medium offered (Druckman 464-465). He cites previous studies that alternatively support the correlation between newspaper readership and issues knowledge or else complicate the question with the introduction of prior political knowledge as a factor to weigh. Conducting content analysis and exit polling about a single campaign in a single market, Druckman concludes that newspapers more than television at the time did hold a more influential, although potentially limited, role in informing the electorate.
Now fast-forward to the age of the internet, when Drew and Weaver’s fifth in a series of presidential election-year telephone surveys indicated that attention not to newspapers, but to television news, televised debates, and online news were the “important predictors, or at least correlates, of voter learning of candidate issue positions and voter interest in the election campaigns.” Their study also related to perceptions of voter apathy, studies of which are discussed below. Regarding political involvement among audiences, the research indicated a slightly waning influence of newspapers compared to previous years. The authors also expressed their own surprise at “the consistency of attention to radio news as a predictor, or at least a correlate, of campaign interest in the last four U.S. presidential elections” (38).
While many research studies examine the effects of mass media, some consideration of local news outlets can also be found. Responding to their own personal observations of the 2000 presidential primary race in South Carolina, Vinson and Moore set out to discover if local and national coverage of the subject was, indeed, as divergent as it had seemed to them — and if so, what implications that held for local and national audiences, respectively. The ensuing content analysis created a basis for comparison among local and national media coverage and campaign communications by and on behalf of the candidates themselves. The researchers found a stark disconnect between what the campaigns versus media emphasized in the race (Vinson and Moore 397), but also between what local and national media conveyed (401). They interpreted that local reporters, by incorporating local contacts and their own knowledge and understanding of the state into their stories, more accurately reflected the reality of the campaign for residents where the campaign was actually taking place. Local reporters correctly predicted the lack of impact the cancellation of the Democratic primary would have on crossover votes and “provided a somewhat more accurate account of the negative campaigning.” Vinson and Moore also found a “significant difference between the two levels of media in their coverage of character. Most of the character coverage … occurred in the local press. … It did not even make the top 10 issues for the national media.”
Extending their study to exit polls in both South Carolina and Michigan, where the Republican primary was conducted just three days later, Vinson and Moore found what they presented as evidence of this divergent coverage’s impact on voter behavior. Taking other factors into account, they conclude that Michigan voters, basing their ballot decisions largely on national media coverage, came away from the South Carolina primary with a very different perspective than their counterparts in South Carolina, who had more access to local coverage (406). The authors also opine that national coverage of locally conducted campaigns, built primarily on first impressions and borrowed press frames, results in reporting that is not completely inaccurate, but also certainly not complete.
Newhagen and Nass also touch on some differences between mass and local media in their scholarly review and exploration of credibility. The authors arrive at a negative relationship between distance and credibility, in which local news outlets, being closer to their readers, enjoy comparatively more credibility with local audiences than mass media, who have to overcome both perceived and physical distance between the institutions and their readers in any given locality (279).
Despite this perception of credibility among local news sources, some critics accuse local television news of being no more than a “vast wasteland” based on content analyses that reveal hyperfocus “on crime, murder, car chases, and mayhem, particularly in lead stories” (Belt and Just 194). After a five-year content analysis of local news in 50 markets, in which Belt and Just examine the relationship between content sophistication and business viability, the two suggest that true credibility actually can — and should — be earned. “We come to the surprising conclusion that quality is not merely good practice but good for the bottom line” (195). The authors do not suggest that stepping up the quality and relevance of local news is without its challenges; rather they maintain that such investment is worthwhile, for the sake of getting and keeping the public’s interest in the news, fulfilling the basic function of journalism in society, and at the same time achieving economic success (209).
Content and Perception
Essential to exploring the sophistication of election news is the ways different types of news influence audience decisions about how — and even if — to vote. Many studies, in fact, define civic engagement as a dependent variable influenced at least in part by news frames and news content. Following common concerns among scholars that negativism discourages political participation (Pinkleton and Austin 332), several studies in the 1990s and beyond have begun to challenge — or at least complicate — that notion.
The population segment long the subject of apathy discussions is young people. Since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1971, 18- to 24-year-olds have been the electoral cohort least likely to exercise that right (319). Administering a paper-and-pencil survey to 420 college students, Pinkleton and Austin attempted to dissect the age group’s media use in order to understand their low levels of public affairs involvement. The authors’ expectation that cynicism positively correlated with apathy was confirmed, but to a lesser extent than what had been suggested by researchers before them (331). Pinkleton and Austin concluded that cynicism may have a short-term negative impact on news media use and long-term damaging relationship with political efficacy, but that in itself cynicism does not diminish political participation in young people. The study also indicated that, contrary to popular opinion, apathy was not related to negative campaigns. “If cynicism affects negativism, but negativism does not affect apathy (and cynicism affects apathy only slightly), scholars will need to look beyond the convenient excuse of frustration with media, campaigns, and institutions to explain nonparticipation among young citizens” (332).
These findings are backed up somewhat by de Vreese, who details the mixed methodologies and results of cynicism studies in his detailed review of “strategy” and “game frame” or “horse-race” definitions and analyses (284-287). Attempting to refine these definitions, along with Capella and Jamieson’s entire “spiral of cynicism” theory, de Vreese determined based on his two-wave panel survey that the relationship of strategic news and audience cynicism is a matter of degrees. The study “only partially confirms that strategic news … does indeed fuel cynicism about politics.” (293) He found that relationship to be dependent on the level of strategy present in the news — implying that press frames are not always black and white, but can be hybrids of varying ratios. “In the context where strategy news was relatively less present, exposure to news in fact contributed to a decrease in the level of cynicism. This finding calls for a reconsideration of the spiral of cynicism hypothesis” (293).
de Vreese furthermore suggests that “the positive relationship between political sophistication and cynicism” reported in his and others’ findings could mean that cynicism is not a sentiment to be avoided, but instead is “perhaps little more than an indication of an ‘interested and critical citizenry’” (294).
Polls and Horse Races
A topic that can scarcely be avoided when surveying the impacts of horse-race election coverage is political polling. “As early as 1984, Lang and Lang suggested that poll results can reinforce majority opinion, a process akin to Noelle-Neumann’s ‘spiral of silence’” (Hardy and Jamieson 725). What some scholars say has changed in recent years, however, is how polls are reported by the press.
Frankovic maintained that very little about poll methodology changed in 2004, although more individual state polling, particularly in “battleground” states, and more Internet polling through private organizations started taking place around 2000 and 2004 (Frankovic 682). Concerned that starting in 2004, however, the public was subjected to as many debates about the polls as they were poll results, Frankovic took a closer narrative look at polling coverage, including frequency of reports about polls, use of polls in political campaigns, an increased level of scrutiny into polling methods, and finally criticism of the polls. She concluded that, while polls still hold value as “a mirror to let the public understand itself…. polls also provide attention for the organization doing them” (694). This, along with Frankovic’s observation that pollsters themselves in 2004 were often attacked by partisans, might eventually undermine journalists’ tradition of relying on polls as the “expert” on public opinion, Frankovic predicts. But she ends with the salvo that, “at least for now, journalists (and politicians) still need to believe in the ‘precision’ of polls to keep doing their jobs” (695).
Patterson is less forgiving in his article, which sets out to “show that journalists continue to craft superficial images tied to the candidates’ support in the polls and … construct election narratives rooted in the candidates’ positions in the race” (716). He calls it “feeding the horses,” and claims that polls keep press frames centered on the game angle of election coverage, to the detriment of issues coverage and ultimately to the detriment of the American public. “The policy issue that Americans said they cared the most about in 2004 — the economy — received less than 5 percent of the total coverage” that year (Patterson 719).
Patterson also took aim at the concept of precision polling, which Frankovic merely hinted at as an elusive ideal. Patterson wrote that a combination of misunderstanding margin of error in poll reporting and misinterpreting small movements in polls as meaningful trends leads journalists to misrepresent what is otherwise a useful tool, ultimately serving to confuse the public it is trying to inform (719). “Paradoxically, surveys heighten journalists’ attention to the candidates, rather than to the voters themselves” (720). Patterson maintained that poll-driven stories are ultimately distortions of reality that promote negative public opinion at the expense of more valuable issues education.
Related to the issue of content, credibility and audience perceptions of media discussed above, D’Angelo and Lombard studied the impact on issues knowledge of what they call “conduit, strategy and accountability” press frames (D’Angelo and Lombard). They borrowed from cognitive science (8-13) in constructing the theory behind their between-subjects experiment in which subjects were given pre-stimulus and post-stimulus questionnaires, concluding that only “participants exposed to the strategy frame” associated the press with negativity. They drew what they called “disturbing conclusions” from this: “In particular, it seems that individuals in our study have internalized the antagonistic relationship between candidates and the press corps” (25). This is a much more dramatic view than that taken by de Vreese and even Pinkleton and Austin. D’Angelo and Lombard cited other research to propose that these media perceptions matter not only for the sake of a media’s brand, but also because a media’s credibility, or lack thereof, in part determines the potential “knowledge gain” of its audience (2).
But knowledge, too, can be evaluated in different ways, according to Hollander in his study on recognition and recall from late-night entertainment programs (Hollander). “Whether viewers of entertainment-based programs learn about public affairs is reminiscent of earlier concerns about the informative power of television news as compared to print sources, most often newspapers” (403). Based on his study of data from the 2004 Political Communications Study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, Hollander said that “what viewers glean from such programs may be a function of many factors: the cognitive effort expended, political interest and sophistication, and exactly what kind of knowledge is tapped in surveys or questionnaires” (403). He argued that late-night shows such as Jay Leno or The Daily Show promote political recognition more than recall, and that this is a valid but far from complete contribution to issues knowledge, especially for younger viewers. “(H)ow competent it leaves them to participate in a meaningful manner remains an open question,” he concluded (412).
Miller and Orr, on the other hand, argued for a new way to even measure political knowledge, much less evaluate it. They proposed eliminating the “Don’t Know” response option from political knowledge questionnaires in order to eliminate non-random psychological factors such as confidence from the survey pool. They found that self-reported political knowledge estimations were higher in the absence of the “DK” (stands for “Don’t Know”) response, the reason being that some people, despite less actual knowledge, are more inclined than others to either think they do know something, or guess (769). The researchers administered a set of three random sample web surveys to test their hypothesis, but without “fanfare” announcing the absence of the DK option. They found that eliminating the option did indeed yield higher knowledge estimates, “both on a per-item and aggregate basis for political and general knowledge” (775).
Whether higher knowledge estimations are a good thing depends on “whether one values validity over reliability … (and) whether one believes that DK responses actually conceal partial knowledge.” Miller and Orr point out that other researchers have argued not giving respondents an way to opt out of a question they do not know the answer to encourages blind guessing, which in turn reduces reliability (776). The authors argue, “This loss in reliability comes with an associated gain in validity, however, since unsystematic variance stemming from blind guessing replaces systematic variance based on the propensity to guess.” They also point out the option to encourage, rather than omit, the DK option in order to reduce the “trade-off” between reliability and validity.
Timing of Voting Decisions
Aside from the question of measuring political knowledge is the timing of when that knowledge gels into a political decision. Bowen turned the cloudy debate about the impact of political advertising on its head with his study of when voters choose whom to vote for. He approached his study into the time of voting decision from the perspective of advertising. Based on research before him, Bowen concluded that early deciders partake of political communications, but mostly to “reinforce existing preferences” (666). Late-deciders may be less invested in the campaigns, but also may be more persuadable and less savvy about political news. Voters who decided during the campaign, research showed, tended to make the most use of the greatest range of political communications (667).
Bowen’s post-election survey after a senate race in Washington state showed roughly 23 percent of voters decided early, 22 percent decided in the middle of the campaign, 25 percent decided late, and almost 31 percent made up their minds during the primary. “General news accounts” were cited as the overall most helpful information to voters, followed by political advertising (671).
In his study, “negative (advertising) spots were highly recalled but worked against their sponsors,” and media coverage of such spots were seen to be very effective in “deflecting their influence” (674). Bowen notes that media coverage is not as likely for down-ticket races such as auditors, commissioners, and the like. He extrapolates that last-minute negative ads, therefore, may be more effective in those cases where and when “there is no opportunity for rebuttal” (674).
A more extreme but hardly uncommon case of absent media coverage is presented by Lipsitz and Teigen, who studied “orphan counties.” The authors approximated that 33 million Americans live in counties that aren’t served by their local media, due to incongruities between media markets and state boundaries (178). Not only did these potential voters not receive election information to help them choose their own political representation in the midterm election studied; they actually were exposed to campaign coverage that was irrelevant to their districts. The latter, the authors found, was the most damaging to the audience’s likelihood to become civically engaged.
Lipsitz and Teigen drew considerable worry from this study on the part of candidates in states with orphan counties, given the hurdles identified in the study to both reach these voters and mobilize them to the polls. The authors also express concern for “those who believe that spending campaign dollars will spur citizens to vote” (195).
Some residents of orphan counties and the younger demographic discussed earlier are certainly not the only Americans who do not exercise their right to vote. Yet comparisons of self-reported voter turnout and actual ballot numbers have frequently shown that individuals report to the American National Election Study that they voted, when in fact they did not (Duff et al. 67-68). The NES began experimenting with survey questions, in addition to its introductory script that acknowledged socially acceptable reasons for not voting, in 2000 and 2002. Duff et al sought to learn more from the 2002 experiment, which “randomly assigned half its respondents to the new version of the turnout question and half to the traditional version” (68). The researchers concluded from their analysis of the survey data that the new question did reduce over-reporting by approximately 8 percent.
The authors went on to access what data they could from the NES survey to uncover potential biases in the traditional or new turnout questions. They were struck by the extent to which they found the traditional turnout question had masked the actually low voter turnout rates of the poorest, least knowledgeable and least politically effective individuals. They determined that the new turnout question revealed these social trends in voter turnout in a way the previous question never could have.
A further observation the authors draw from their analysis is that the “social desirability effect is very deep in some spots and very shallow in others” (88). They conclude that the new survey question did not do well in improving accuracy “where the sense of social desirability runs deep.”
The most important lesson to be learned from this review of election-related research spanning decades — especially with the goal of improving journalism’s impact going forward — is that things change. They always have, and they will continue to do so. New institutional systems and reporting practices developed today, therefore, will have to adapt tomorrow in order to stay current and stay ahead of the curve of media and political evolution. Journalists and media managers would do well to build models that are structurally nimble in order to respond most effectively to both business and editorial imperatives. Frequent and regular surveys of a media’s own efficacy and its relationship with its subjects, supporting businesses, and audiences would also be wise to help journalism anticipate and even direct some of this inevitable change, rather than remain stuck in the less effective emergency-mode of having to catch up.
The preponderance of research into presidential campaigns is also notable in this review — although not surprising and certainly not without explanation. The scope of many research studies is no doubt limited in terms of both finances and human resources. Nonetheless, more research into statewide, local and down-ticket elections would be helpful for media, advertisers and audiences alike. Although “local” media outlets by their nature only serve a relatively small number of individuals and businesses, collectively their numbers are great and offer data samples sizable enough to detect meaningful trends. Some of the literature reviewed here also points to local media as holding the best hope for improved service in the public interest. More navigational notes would be helpful in creating a new roadmap to success for smaller media ventures.
That said, the countless configurations of media effects by media type, size, region, audience demographic and infinite other factors can only take a media outlet so far. Outside studies are helpful, but should not be considered a replacement for a newsroom’s own understanding of its audience — in all the shades, shapes and sizes of their perceptions, needs, levels of political efficacy and reasons for engaging (or not) with their community. As the newer trend of community outreach by media continues to evolve, it would be interesting for future researchers to measure and describe the ways these new practices are helping to push newsrooms and journalists along their own evolutionary path.
This literature review assessed the field of election coverage with the express goal of improving editorial content as a way to increase public civic participation. Studies such as Bowen’s and even Lipsitz and Teigen’s, written more from the perspective of advertisers than editors, can nonetheless be useful for informing editorial decisions. Similarly, Noelle-Neumann “spiral of silence” theory of public opinion is equally applicable to newsrooms as it is to audiences. As Belt and Just intimate (206), even newsrooms are not immune from their own spirals of silence. Media managers would do well build checks against such social pressures into the systems they create in order to maintain an atmosphere open to the type of innovation that will be needed to keep journalism relevant in an ever-changing society.
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