Date of Award
Union College Only
Bachelor of Arts
news, coverage, strategic, public, candidates
This thesis studies the impact of the media on the public’s attitudes toward politics during presidential elections. The focus of researching public attitudes was to see how Americans viewed the media and the candidates running for office. The literature was vast on this subject and some of the main findings suggested that the media has increased its use of strategic news. Issue-based news has been decreasing over the past few decades, especially with great numbers of Americans turning to television for their news. There are a few authors who describe the differences between strategic and issue-based news coverage. The strategic news coverage includes various indicators; many are used in conjunction with uncovering the candidates’ motivations. These factors of strategic coverage are increased polling, emphasis on candidates’ motivations and performances, focusing on winning and losing, and using language of war or games to describe the presidential race. News organizations are employing these methods when covering the news and some researchers explain why this is occurring and what the potential impacts are on the public. Strategic news is agreed to be more entertaining than the somewhat dry issue-based news coverage. This becomes problematic when media outlets are so profit driven, as they are constantly looking to increase their viewers. Increasing the audience often comes at the expense of beneficial issue-based news coverage. Those viewers who search for the less complex coverage will tune into news that quickly discusses the latest electoral map and reveals the most recent polls. Some refer to these people as “cognitive misers” and they share in the blame for the increases in strategic news coverage. The media outlets are businesses and if there is little demand for deep policy coverage, then the news will lack this type of reporting. It has been established that strategic news coverage is growing and the implications of this are very important. Research has been conducted in order to determine the impact that strategic news has on the public attitudes and more broadly on the American democratic process. Scholars suggest that the public is more likely to view politics with cynicism when the news is framed strategically. They found that news stories that focused heavily on the motivations of the candidates, rather than their policy positions were likely to elicit negative responses from people. The American public has come to distrust politicians and view these people as only self-interested players in a game. These findings do not bode well for Americans because if strategic news is on the rise, then cynical attitudes will grow. Attitudes such as these can decrease voter turnout because of disinterest and distrust towards the candidates. People begin to feel as though their participation will not make a difference when the media presents politics as a strategic game. Another important aspect of these studies suggested that political knowledge and learning was hindered with strategic news coverage. The most basic conclusion is that those who watch strategic news learn strategic information, while those who watch issue-based news learn about the campaign’s issues. Researchers found that the quality of learning decreased when the news had strategic framing. The larger implications of this finding were of concern in much of the literature because a politically uninformed public cannot make informed decisions about voting. According to some of the scholars, this lack of political knowledge can be a detriment to a well functioning democracy. Much of the literature on the subject appeared somewhat outdated in the analysis of the different of media outlets and the types of coverage used by them. This is what led to my research concerning the effects of political news coverage on public feelings. I wanted to measure the use of strategic news coverage during the most recent 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama. NBC Nightly News became the tool for measuring the typical media outlet’s coverage of the election because the program has nearly 10 million viewers on a nightly basis. I analyzed the twelve news episodes leading up to Election Day from October 22nd to November 3rd, and looked at the content of the reporting to determine how much strategic and issue-based news it contained. There was 126 minutes of reporting on the election, of which strategic news was more prevalent than issue-based news, but often the two types were mixed together in the reports. I also coded for the amount of time that was spent reporting on each political party, as well as the main topics of the stories. In order to find strategic reporting, it required looking closely at the wording of the reporters to see if the focus of the story was on the candidates’ motivations or if they were emphasizing the “game” of winning the election. There were numerous examples of using war language in describing the campaign, and polling was also relied on heavily for NBC’s programming. The next section of my thesis measured the direct reaction to the news coverage of the NBC viewers. In analyzing the NBC New blog, called The Daily/Nightly, I was able to code the response that the public had to these news episodes. I looked closely at the blog posts from the corresponding dates to the news episodes that preceded the election. After reading through all of the comments left on the blog, I was able to code them into eleven separate categories. I studied a total of 174 comments as a gauge for the feelings among the public about the candidates and the media’s coverage of the election. The bloggers were only a sample of Americans, but their reactions were meant to be representative of the whole public. Though the demographics of bloggers are different than that of the entire American public, the group provided definite insight into the feelings that some have about politics after viewing the news. My findings suggested that people were more likely to distrust the media’s coverage because a number of comments claimed that NBC had been reporting unfairly. Bloggers were much more concerned with equal reporting for the candidates than they were about the prevalent strategic news coverage. There were a few demands for more issue-based news, but the viewers mostly criticized the media in other ways. The blog comments showed that the public was largely cynical toward the media, but frequently the comments were also negative in relation to the candidates. The cynical comments regarding the candidates usually focused on the motives of the politician and demonstrated a lack of trust in their character. In the end, my research was very precise at pinpointing how the public feels after viewing news that tends to focus on the strategy of the candidates. The literature on the subject of how the media’s coverage of presidential elections affects the public attitude is somewhat outdated. My study adds to the current research on the subject because it looks at the most recent presidential election and analyzes blog comments as a way to measure public attitudes. Surveys and questionnaires have been used to see what people think about politics as a way to gain insight into their distrust; however cynicism is a feeling that can often be more difficult to identify. This is why my analysis of the comments looks in-depth at the meaning and significance behind the blogger’s feelings in their comments. This contemporary measure for public opinion is an innovative addition to the current studies of people’s feelings about politics. Another beneficial aspect to my research was that by using the NBC blog, I was able to get a direct reaction to the NBC News coverage that I had already analyzed. This meant that the comments were left about the specific segments and interviews on NBC Nightly News. Therefore, the feelings and criticisms related directly to the news coverage studied and they were not merely a general association between the media and the public. This connection made the conclusions of my findings sounder than if I had studied an unrelated blog. My research contributes to the current literature on the subject because of the contemporary blog analysis as a way to understand public attitudes. It also benefits the pool of research because it was a study of the most recent 2008 presidential election, one that was both interesting and historically groundbreaking.
Dunlop, Rebecca L., "The impact of election news coverage on the American public" (2009). Honors Theses. 1296.