Lit Review: media and elections

Literature Review: How local media coverage of elections can help turn out more and better informed voters

Introduction

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.

Literature Review

Media Effects

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)

Media Evolution

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).

Local Media

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.

Issues Knowledge

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).

Voter Turnout

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.”

Conclusion

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.


Bibliography

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How scholars think and work

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Bennett and Lyengar, “New Era of Minimal Effects?
  • Singer, Jane, “Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors….”
  • McCombs, Max, “The Agenda-setting function of the press”
  • Capella and Jamieson, “Framing the news”

Journalism apparently is not the only field in which debates about objectivity and framing flourish. We also read about them (by different names) this week in discussions of scholarly research methods and approaches. It’s no surprise to find this overlap. After all, the fields of both reporting and researching place high value on the goals of explanation and prediction.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of “How to build social science theories,” Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa build an understanding of research by breaking theories down into their “building blocks.” It reminded me in a much more sophisticated way of learning how to diagram sentences as a child (which is great, because I loved that part of fifth grade). The authors clarify the differences and similarities among constructs, concepts and variables. We also get a lesson in the ways that pairing different types of variables — categorical/continual, dependent/independent — produce different results: namely, hypothesis or proposition.

A hypothesis, built from at least two continual variables, is preferable in research to a proposition, which “provide(s) information about only one variable at a time…” Assumptions are a third type of theoretical statement, and the authors acknowledge that they underlie all research. Their admonition is to define assumptions as clearly as possible, in order to keep them from undermining the work being done.

“What communication scientists do” by Chaffee and Berger also delineates many distinct phases of research. But the chapter may have been better titled “What communication scientists should do, and what you should look for when assessing their work.” In explaining the merits of good research and why they matter, the authors create a helpful rubric for assessing the quality of research we encounter. They also issue a call for studies that explore a “communication event” within and even between the four major “levels of analysis,” which they identify as intraindividual, interpersonal, organizational and societal.

I found this introduction to a new lexicon incredibly dense and equally helpful to orient me in this new world of scholarly research. The examples the authors providing were essential for following along, but it was especially illuminating to recognize some of this week’s research concepts in the work we have already discussed.

When I read Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa saying “…it is helpful for scholars to clarify their own deeply held beliefs and to acknowledge these when directly pertinent to the study,” I was reminded of Duffy, Thorsen and Vultee’s call for values transparency in “The Pursuit of Objectivity.”

Likewise, Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa’s discussion of the “indicators” of a concept seemed on parallel with the concept of framing. After all, word choice and detail selection are just as much a part of formulating research questions and choosing variables to measure as they are in “framing the news,” as written about by Capella and Jamieson.

Chaffee and Berger asked “Who should be the judge of communication effectiveness,” the critics or the audience? I wondered if they shared an office with Herbert Gans, who wrote in “Democracy and the News” (Chapter 3) that the dysfunction of journalistic institutions is, to quote myself from an earlier paper, “exacerbated by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.”

But the most striking — and promising — correlation to our ongoing discussions that I found in this week’s reading was Chafee and Berger’s comments about “designing communication systems.”

“There has been some interest in redesigning certain institutions to optimize their performance. … But threat of extinction may be necessary before some institutions will initiate internal modification.”

Written in 1987, I don’t imagine they could have guessed that it’s journalism, the ultimate (in my opinion) communication system that is in need of — and undergoing — such radical transformation.

Objectivity and Persuasion

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”
  • Duffy, Thorson and Vultee: “The Pursuit of Objectivity”

In “The Pursuit of Objectivity,” Duffy and Vultee frame journalism as an enterprise whose inherently persuasive nature should be embraced and acknowledged, rather than vainly denied.

Citing numerous sources in a broad field of communications scholarship, primarily journalism and rhetoric, they argue that journalism employs specific rhetorical techniques in pursuit of persuasion based on cultural values. Although these values are articulated in many professional codes of journalism, those codes urge “objectivity” that the authors find mutually exclusive with the values the same codes espouse. With a brief content analysis, they discuss the use of frames and content selection as persuasive techniques that journalists — and journalism institutions — apply in an oftentimes unwitting act of persuasion. By pointing out the inherently value-laden aspects of journalism, the authors seek to undermine arguments opposing public journalism. Finally, they urge what they call “radical curriculum reform” of journalism education.

The urgency of Duffy and Vultee’s message is heard most strongly in their observation that the current imperative for rebuilding the business of journalism presents a perfect occasion for fixing its problems — not just regarding financial structures but also, they argue, in terms of mission and craft. They acknowledge the “silo” trend in readership: “(C)itizens are able to contruct their own interpretations of reality including those recommended by their in-person or virtual networks. When those versions of reality conflict with the so-called authoritative sources, dissonance occurs.”

Duffy, Page and Young’s article “Obama as Anti-American” exemplifies this apparent inevitability. Not trusting many major media news sources about the validity of President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, for example, the underground “birther” movement was forged in no small part from the viral exchange of humorous and critical emails that often contained altered visual images that undermined the president’s identity.

Using detailed content analysis of such emails that contained visual images based on cultural allusions, Duffy, Page and Young explore the patterns of characterization of Obama that emerge and how specific cultural references communicate the ideology of the sender. They also make the case for viewing emails as modern folklore, and from a bird’s eye view ask “What worldviews emerge when the totality of the images are examined” and how social identity can be defined by the exchange of such images.

Read in concert, the two articles seem to be answering their own question: What will happen if we do not radically transform the way journalism presents itself to its public? We need only do nothing to find out, because the public is already using the media available to it through new technology to construct its own version of reality.

I’m certainly not going to argue that point, overall. And since I found myself frustrated with many points Duffy and Vultee made in their article, I was surprised at the end to find myself in complete and energetic agreement with their conclusions. The fact that I disagreed with many of their rhetorical stops along the way, I think, comes down to the fundamental definition of what we all mean by the word “objectivity.” That term itself has become so loaded that I wonder if, in this radical restructuring of journalism that Duffy and Vultee call for (and that I echo), we shouldn’t come up with a whole new word.

It would describe a baseline of shared cultural values from which most (no hedge deletion here) journalists operate, on top of which many layers of objectivity can be applied.

I reject the definition of “objectivity” as an absence of values.

I believe there is a least common denominator of social values that even our extremely heterogeneous society shares to a great extent. There are always exceptions and outliers and deviants. And yes, it is a judgment call as to when a fringe of society gains enough critical mass or embodies a valid enough point to be seen as holding a “legitimate” concern. This baseline of social norms is shifting ground. And yes, journalism can play a role in advocating for that shift.

The U.S. civil rights movement of mid-20th century is an example I think of often. Journalists, as members of society, reflected and reinforced a growing movement that changed our baseline values. Our ground is shifting under us even now, regarding climate change science, as Duffy and Vurtee mention, for example. And I wonder at what point our cultural values baseline will encompass gay rights as standard civil rights.

I have no doubt that journalism, even “objectively” practiced, will play a role.

Bias and Objectivity

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Schudson, “The objectivity norm in American journalism”
  • Alterman, Eric, “What liberal media?” Chapter 4
  • Lichter, S. Robert, “Consistently liberal: But does it matter?”
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”

It took more than telegrams, wire services, and a booming newspaper market to establish American journalists as the pioneers of objectivity, Schudson argues in “The objectivity norm in American journalism.” He identifies four specific social patterns at work that made journalism ripe for professionalization through explicit normative values and behaviors.

Going beyond the commonly accepted technological and economic factors behind journalism’s objectivity norm, Schudson also places it in the context of broader social and political movements leading up to the 1920s — the period in which an explicit objectivity norm first developed. It follows, I was fascinated to learn, the emergence of politics as “an administrative science.”

Given today’s culture of collaboration, Schudson’s second condition of “group egoism” seems especially important now as a factor that may help keep journalistic values normalized in a shifting media landscape. “Here the prescription that ‘the way we do’ things is ‘the way one should do’ things is a … way of defining the group in relation to other groups,” he writes. Establishing shared values and practices is an essential first step in working together, as for example NPR and ProPublica have done, and as more and more media outlets are finding a financial imperative to do.

Schudon’s drive to pinpoint an exact moment in journalistic history, a specific author responsible for the birth of the objectivity norm, seemed a bit obsessive to me. But I do wish that one of the authors on liberalism in the media would have been so driven. Neither of them discuss how or why or when it came to be that the media is (rightly or wrongly) accused of being liberal.

In “Consistently Liberal,” Lichter cites decades of journalist surveys proving that a majority of journalists are liberals (or Democrats). But, Lichter maintains, that doesn’t mean their journalism is biased. He points out, “The various conventions of journalistic ‘objectivity’ — separating fact from opinion, citing sources, checking allegations — represent practical efforts to deal with this philosophical problem.”

He also points out that, more recently, journalists have become more reluctant to identify their political affiliations. If it hasn’t already been done, this seems like an area ripe for further research: What is this journalist reticence a response to, and more importantly what does it accomplish? Anecdotally, I’m familiar with a sort of backlash against objectivity — one that rejects reticence — in which journalists feel it is more honest to acknowledge their biases to their audiences up front. I hope someone is measuring this trend so we can track its impact.

The trend that Alterman measures (or at least refers to) in “What Liberal Media?” that I found most useful is the “conservative colonization of the so-called ‘center.’” Conservative pundits, he argues, have successfully moved the metaphorical 50-yard-line so far back into their own territory that formerly moderate views have become liberal. Formerly liberal views are now regarded as so extreme that they can be marginalized as the belief of a radical, fringe, and possibly dangerous few. My question of how journalists are to respond to this in a constructive way is not one he answers in this chapter.

Lichter said in his article that “the news is less a mirror than a prism.” I couldn’t help but feel that, while interesting, Alterman’s prism was rather narrow. His critique of David Broder (Washington Post) ends with the assertion that “Broder’s embrace of a host of unproven conservative assumptions under the guise of anti-ideological, sensible centrism is hardly an isolated story. It is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception…”

But then Alterman goes on to detail the editorial struggles at “even the liberal New Republic.” And he stops there. For an author so critical of certain journalists’ embrace of unproven assumptions, he doesn’t do much measuring himself. We are presented with very detailed descriptions of two trees that, we are simply told, are highly representative of the forest as a whole.

While Alterman describes the politics of very high-level “punditocracy,” Duffy, Page and Young go the opposite direction in “Obama as Anti-American.” Pulling theories and techniques from many researchers before them, the group dissects the nature and content of “right-wing forwarded emails” as a digital folklore, pointing out the special impact of visual appropriation when used in political messaging.

This digital folklore is an example of what’s new as media (online publishing, photo editing software) becomes more accessible to the general public. In these social exchanges, not only are the group’s norms not explicitly stated, as has evolved among journalists, but they are also most certainly not about objectivity. The visual emails illustrate but a sliver of what journalists are up against in maintaining our objectivity and the public’s value of it.

Journalists and Citizens

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:

State of the Media 2011 Overview

Survey: Mobile News & Paying Online

“Bulletins from the Future,” The Economist

It’s not all bad news in the business of journalism.

It’s not all good, either — and hardly as promising as the prospects for the computer programming industry, to which the news media is increasingly beholden, as Rosenstiel and Mitchell point out in the overview of PEW’s annual report on American journalism.

But “after two dreadful years,” the report opens, “most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover.” While newspapers continue to struggle and the three cable news channels saw their first audience decline in years, PEW reports that signs of traction are beginning to show in development of new journalistic business models. Patterns that indicate future growth are also emerging in the way that people access — and may be willing to pay for — “news and information” online and through mobile devices.

Still, there are challenges. The State of the News Media report evokes Robert Picard’s assessment of the “de-skilling” of the profession due to “lower pay, more demands for speed, less training, and more volunteer work” among journalists. It’s a trend that is certainly exacerbated by the morphing of audiences into not only consumers but also contributors and distributors of news, which Tom Standage points out audiences have become in “Bulletins from the Future.”

An attitudinal opposition among the public toward paying for online news and information is another persistent challenge in the new media landscape. Again, it’s not all bad. PEW tells us, “While currently 5% of adults report paying for local news content online, nearly a quarter (23%) say that they would be willing to pay at least a small amount…” Nonetheless, that leaves roughly 3 out of 4 people currently unwilling to do so.

And why would they pay for it? Most people, according to PEW, say that losing their local papers would matter not much (nearly 30%) or not at all (39%). Only 28% of respondents felt the loss would have a major impact on their ability to stay informed about their communities.

I am left wondering about the difference between perception and reality in the latter set of data. My experience with the sole local daily newspaper (which also posts all its articles online — recently behind a paywall) in my hometown of Portsmouth, New Hamsphire, is that it’s a favorite target of criticism among many people across most socio-economic boundaries. And with good reason. The paper blatantly panders editorial decisions to favor and even lure business advertisers, and too many front-page, top-of-the-fold headlines are about puppies or lost rings for it to be taken all that seriously. And this is from the 13th largest city in the state, not an isolated hamlet in the boondocks.

Nonetheless, the news about city government and state-level affairs that the paper also publishes makes it the only source of substantive local reporting. While criticisms of the Portsmouth Herald are well-deserved, I believe it’s also undervalued as a whole. Yet this conundrum is partly of its own making, and I can’t imagine that it’s unique to Portsmouth. If local papers like the Herald did more to earn the respect of their readers, would more people be willing to pay for them?

Another PEW data set that makes me wonder is that more than a third of “mobile local information consumers say they and others like them can have a big impact on their community.” This sounds promising for the ideal of journalism fostering a healthy democracy, but I am curious how accurate their feelings are. I also wonder how many of the people who feel so empowered actually act on their perceived potential.

The PEW study finds that news savvy is claimed less according to traditional fault lines of race and more along contemporary class divisions according to education and income. At the same time, many trends of mobile device usage do — for the time being — correlate to race, as well as age. Learning such demographic information about audiences will certainly help media catering to their demands and interests. And this, no doubt, feeds the growing plurality of news sources in America.

In some respects, as Standage points out, this plurality is a return to the past, before mass media became the dominant paradigm for the industry. But rather than assume that repetition makes this current trend benign, we would do well to study that era — in particular how it defined a national dialogue across the fault lines of income, race, education and age. Given the current tensions between classes and ideologies in our country, I believe we should attempt to learn from that history, rather than simply repeat it.

History and Structure of American Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Hallin and Giles, “Presses and Democracies”
  • Entman, “The Nature and Sources of News”
  • Commission on Freedom of the Press, “The Requirements”

The independent nature of the press — particularly the American press — defies a system of classification so tidy as biology’s mechanism for placing each specimen in a fully describable and quantifiable category. But that won’t stop scholars from trying.

And with good reason. There is much to be learned from the exercise of correlating media systems with the geo-political characteristics of the societies where they emerged, as Hallin and Giles to do in their chapter “Presses and Democracies.” Likewise, “The Requirements” put forward by the Commission on Freedom of the Press were an important normalizing benchmark in the changing professional standards of American journalism in the mid-20th century. And although the system for distinguishing among media, as laid out by Entman in “The Nature and Sources of News,” is admittedly far from precise, it is nonetheless a useful measuring stick to compare how the ever-increasing number and types of news forms stack up.

The analyses within all three of these articles are geared toward a dual measurement: how different forms of journalism compare with one another as they strive for (or ignore) the ideal of service to democracy.

That ideal can look very different in different places, as we learn in “Presses and Democracies.” By placing global media systems in the context of their political and cultural environments, Hallin and Giles find that they emerge along a parallel with comparative politics (a field of study from which the authors borrow heavily in their analyses and descriptions of the press, primarily in Europe and North America).

The authors propose that journalism’s “liberal,” “polarized pluralist” and “democratic corporatist” models (gauged according to their characteristics of mass circulation, state involvement, “political parallelism” or the alignment of mass media with political agendas, and professionalization) are very much reflections of the political realities and cultural values of the societies they serve.

Being such true reflections of societies, whose history and governance is a complex matrix of trends, there is an exception to every rule and more than a little overlap and oversimplification in the resulting classification system, but the authors nonetheless describe the general characteristics of these different media models and explain where, approximately, different countries fall along the spectrum.

“Presses and Democracies” is an international and largely historical study, but shares a basic premise with Entman’s “The Nature and Sources of News,” which is implicitly U.S.-focused. Rather than continue to analyze what journalism “should be,” both articles are framed to describe journalism as it actually is. With this understanding, both authors assert, one can better assess the true condition of the profession today. Only then can journalists hope to direct the field’s functional reality going forward.

Entman’s example provides an important lesson on perspective regarding the function of news. He gauges whether or not something is “news” based on how it’s received by audiences — not how it’s branded or intended by its producers. Therefore not only traditional, mainstream news sources, but also advocacy journalism, tabloid journalism, and even outright entertainment media all have a place along his news spectrum. And that place tends to be fluid for every news source described.

Regardless the source, he finds news recognizable based on its effect of “illuminating four areas of knowledge vital to effective democratic citizenship”: policy, power, ideology and an audience’s own self-interest in the topic being covered.

In contrast, “The Requirements” is a document that sets forth a definition of journalism for media to strive for — not a description of media in its contemporary form. Framing the discussion from the audience’s point of view, and assuming that it’s the press’s responsibility to provide “the current intelligence needed by a free society,” the Commission on Freedom of the Press delineates what audiences require of the press.

The impossibility of any single media to provide all of these requirements is fully recognized. All serving as parts of the collective whole, each media provides a unique set of functions in service to the ideal. The fallibility of the classification systems described by Entman and by Hallin and Giles are also duly acknowledged.

Despite the imperfections of each of these measuring sticks — or maybe precisely because they include so much grey area — these analyses are helpful in understanding the nuances and implications of how and why various media deliver their content they way they do. The rubrics are also helpful descriptions of the landscape for teasing out where you want your own contributions to journalism to live.