Do the news media provide voters with sufficient information to function as competent democratic citizens? Many have answered “no,” citing as evidence the proliferation of entertainment-oriented “soft news.” Yet, public affairsoriented “hard” news is often unappealing to politically inattentive individuals. We argue that news “quality” depends upon how well it enables citizens to determine which candidate best fits their own preferences. In this regard, for politically inattentive citizens, we argue that soft news is more efficient than traditional hard news. Drawing on the logic of low-information rationality, we derive a series of hypotheses, which we test using the 2000 National Election Study.We find that politically inattentive individuals who consumed daytime talk shows (a popular form of soft news) were more likely than their nonconsuming, inattentive counterparts to vote for the candidate who best represented their self-described preferences. This suggests soft news can facilitate voting “competence” among at least some citizens.
Slate.com editor-at-large Jack Shafer wrote an article about this study, You can find it here. "UCLA Today" also did a feature story on the study, which you can find here.
A supplementalappendix for this paper, including expert survey questionnaire, NES variable definitions and coding, additional discussion of several concepts addressed in the paper, as well as a variety of robustness, reliability and validity tests, is available, in pdf format, here.
It is virtually a truism in American politics that a focus on some issue areas during election campaigns, like national security or traditional values, redounds to the benefit of Republicans, while emphasis on other areas, like education or social security, benefits Democrats. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as “issue ownership” (Petrocik 1996, Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994). To the extent that one or the other party benefits disproportionately from media emphasis on particular issues during election campaigns, it is possible that, whether intended or not, media coverage may disproportionately benefit one or the other party. If so, this would appear to be an important potential form of bias. Baum and Gussin (2004) find that typical individuals use media outlet labels as a heuristic, to assess the validity of information presented by different outlets. Liberals tended to “find” a conservative bias in outlets they believed, ex ante, have a conservative slant, even if the content was actually from an outlet that they believed to have a liberal slant. The opposite was true for conservatives. We extend that research by investigating how issue ownership and the Hostile Media Outlet Phenomenon mediate, separately and in interaction, voter perceptions of media campaign coverage. We look at the effects of story selection on individuals’ perceptions concerning which party benefits more from media issue coverage. To do so, we conducted an experimental content analysis in which we asked subjects to code transcripts and articles, from eight major network and cable news broadcasts and newspapers, about the 2000 presidential campaign. We modified the transcripts and articles to create three distinct sets of treatment stimuli. One set correctly identified the source of the material. The second incorrectly identified the source and, in the third, all identifying elements were removed. We investigate whether individuals with differing political preferences are more or less likely to view certain issues as favorable to one or the other party, as well as the extent to which their propensity to do so is mediated by media outlets’ “brand names,” independent of the true sources of news coverage. We find that, except when they have strong prior beliefs about the ideological orientation of a media outlet, our subjects rely far more on issue ownership as a heuristic than on the hostile media heuristic. However, when they do have strong prior beliefs regarding outlet ideology, the opposite pattern prevails, with subjects relying on the hostile media heuristic to evaluate news content.
In an effort to show themselves as “regular guys,” the 2000 presidential election found presidential aspirants commiserating with Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell, Queen Latifah and Regis Philbin, trading one-liners with Jay Leno and David Letterman, discussing rap music with MTV's youthful viewers and even courting the kid (or perhaps parent) vote on Nickelodeon. This study is a preliminary assessment of the impact of entertainment-oriented talk show coverage of presidential politics, using the 2000 election as a case study. I consider why entertainment-oriented TV talk shows might choose to cover presidential politics, why candidates choose to appear on talk shows, and who is likely to be the primary audience for such coverage. This discussion yields a series of hypotheses concerning the effects of talk show coverage of presidential politics on public views of the candidates and the campaign. I test my hypotheses through a content analysis of campaign coverage by entertainment-oriented talk shows, traditional political talk shows, and national news campaign coverage, as well as through a series of statistical analyses employing the 2000 NES. I find that talk show coverage of presidential politics does indeed influence voter attitudes. In particular, net of partisan preferences and a variety of other demographic and political factors, voters who rely primarily on entertainment-oriented TV talk shows as a source of campaign information are more likely to find the opposition candidate “likeable,” as well as to cross party lines and vote for him, relative to their more politically aware counterparts who pay closer attention to traditional news outlets.
This article is available for download from JSTOR here.
You can download a zip archive containing the 2000 NES variable definitions and re-coding, as well as the content analysis data and coding form, from this article here.
This study investigates the differences in coverage of foreign policy by the soft and hard news media, and the implications of such differences for public attitudes regarding the appropriate U.S. role in the world. I find that, relative to traditional news outlets, the soft news media place greater emphasis on dramatic, human-interest themes and episodic frames and less emphasis on knowledgeable information sources or thematic frames, while also having a greater propensity to emphasize the potential for bad outcomes. I then develop a conceptual framework in order to determine the implications of these differences. I argue that the style of coverage of soft news outlets tends to induce suspicion and distrust of a proactive or internationalist approach to U.S. foreign policy, particularly among the least politically attentive segments of the public. I test this and several related hypotheses through multiple statistical investigations into the effects of soft news coverage on attitudes toward isolationism in general, and U.S. policy regarding the Bosnian Civil War in particular. I find that among the least politically attentive members of the public, but not their more-attentive counterparts, soft news exposurebut not exposure to traditional news sourcesis indeed associated with greater isolationism in general, and opposition to a proactive U.S. policy toward Bosnia in particular.
In this study, I explain why, despite the potential credibility enhancement associated with generating domestic audience costs, leaders frequently opt to “go private,” by conducting foreign policy out of the public spotlight. I argue that leaders (in this instance U.S. presidents) are likely to prefer to forego the potential benefits of audience costs (such as enhanced credibility in the eyes of an adversary) in crises involving relatively modest strategic stakes, unless they are confident of success in a fight. There are two reasons for this. First, public scrutiny disproportionately raises the potential political price of a bad outcome, thereby decreasing a leader's willingness to incur a large political risk for a relatively small strategic or political gain. Second, the reactions of the domestic “audience,” once a leader seeks to engage them, is not entirely predictable. Hence, leaders' efforts to generate audience costs can sometimes backfire, leading to reduced, rather than enhanced, credibility. I test my hypotheses with data on U.S. behavior in all international crises between 1946 and 1994. My results show that when U.S. national security interests in a crisis are modest, American presidents are indeed less likely to speak publicly about potential adversaries, unless they are quite confident of success if a fight ensues.
You can download a zipped excel spreadsheet containing the data for this article here.
If you or your institution subscribe to Ingenta, you can download a pdf copy of this article here.
In “Any Good News in Soft News?” Markus Prior investigates whether or not, beyond enhancing their attentiveness to select political issues, consumers also learn about politics from soft news. He presents evidence suggesting that the audience for soft news is much smaller than that for hard news, and that a self-expressed preference for soft news outlets is associated with at most sporadic gains in factual political knowledge. He concludes that the public appears to learn about politics from the soft news media at most only sporadically. In this commentary, I argue, contrary to Prior, that the audience for soft news outlets is, in fact, quite large, perhaps rivaling that for hard news. I further argue that long-term retention of factual political knowledge – the focus of Prior’s web-based survey -- is a highly restrictive definition of learning. By broadening our definition, taking into account recent insights from cognitive and social psychology concerning human information processing, it becomes possible to understand how consuming soft news might indeed be associated with learning about politics, but not necessarily with an enhanced long-term store of factual political knowledge. I present evidence that consuming soft news influences the attitudes of politically inattentive individuals and that, in at least some fairly predictable contexts, consuming soft news is also associated with enhanced factual political knowledge. I conclude that while Prior’s finding of an absence of evidence of consistent factual political knowledge effects represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political significance of the soft news media, it does not constitute compelling evidence of absence of any meaningful learning about politics associated with consuming soft news. Hence, as Prior acknowledges in his conclusion, it is premature to conclude that there is no good news in soft news.
The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the "soft news" media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.
Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.
This study argues that, due to selective political coverage by the entertainment-oriented, soft news media, many otherwise politically inattentive individuals are exposed to information about high-profile political issues, most prominently foreign policy crises, as an incidental byproduct of seeking entertainment. I conduct a series of statistical investigations examining the relationship between individual media consumption and attentiveness to a series of recent high-profile foreign policy crisis issues. For purposes of comparison, I also investigate several non-foreign crisis issues, some of which possess characteristics appealing to soft news programs, and others of which lack such characteristics. I find that information about foreign crises, and other issues possessing similar characteristics, presented in a soft news context, has indeed attracted the attention of politically uninvolved Americans. The net effect is a reduced disparity in attentiveness to select high profile political issues across different segments of the public.
Replication datasets for this article are available for download as zipped Excel files here.
Building on recent work in evolutionary psychology, we predict substantial gender-related differences in demand for scandalous political news. We argue that individuals’ self-images can alter their motivation to seek information about potential sexual competitors and mates, even when those figures are “virtual”—appearing in mass media. Individuals perceiving themselves as attractive will seek negative news about attractive same-gender individuals, whereas individuals perceiving themselves as unattractive will seek negative information about the opposite gender. We test our hypotheses in three ways. First, we investigate partially disaggregated national opinion data regarding news attention. Second, we conduct an experiment in which we asked participants to choose the two most interesting stories from a menu of headlines. We varied the gender and party affiliation of the individual featured in the story. Each participant saw aheadline promoting a DUI arrest of an attractive male or female “rising star” from one of the two parties. Finally, we repeat the experiment with a national sample, this time also varying the valence of the tabloid story. We find strong correlations between respondents’ self-image and their likelihood of seeking and distributing positive or negative information about “virtual” competitors and mates.
For the past 30 years, presidents have enlisted prime-time television to promote their policies to the American people. For most of this era, they have been able to commandeer the national airwaves and speak to "captive" viewers. Recently, however, presidents appear to be losing their audiences. Two leading explanations are the rise of political disaffection and the growth of cable. We investigate both by developing and testing a model of the individual’s viewing decision using both cross-sectional (1996 NES survey) and time-series (128 Nielsen audience ratings for presidential appearances between 1969 and 1998) data. We find that cable television but not political disaffection has ended the golden age of presidential television. Moreover, we uncover evidence that both presidents and the broadcast networks have begun adapting strategically to this new reality in scheduling presidential appearances.
The time-series data for this article is available for download as an Excel file here.