ERIC Identifier: ED346527
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Gottlieb, Stephen S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
The Media's Role in Political Campaigns. ERIC Digest.
Much is written about the effect that the mass media have upon the
presentation, and the outcome, of political campaigns. Frequently, critics
charge that news reporting focuses on the superficial, personal characteristics
of candidates and ignores the issues underlying elections. Observers of the
process also target advertising, which they say distorts positions and
trivializes important issues. At the same time, it is suggested that the
predominance of polling by news outlets turns elections into popularity contests
and causes candidates to follow rather than lead voter opinion on contemporary
issues. This ERIC Digest looks at these and related questions about the
relationship between the political process and the media.
"PAID FOR BY THE COMMITTEE TO ELECT..."
Advertising, by its
nature, takes positions. Commercials suggest that the advertiser's product is
better than a competitor's or is important to the viewer's well-being. Such a
claim may or may not be true, and the question is not always so easy for the
reader, viewer, or listener to evaluate. While the results of a bad choice about
which brand of soap to buy may be inconsequential, a wrong decision about whom
to elect to a position of public trust can have far-reaching consequences.
The ramifications of advertising in politics are not all negative.
Advertisements can help the public become aware of political candidates and
issues and educate would-be voters about what is at stake in campaigns. In fact,
commercials can be more instructive in that regard than debates (Just, 1990).
As is true of other types of human relationships, first impressions can be
very important as voters form their opinions about political candidates. A study
of the 1976 U.S. presidential race between Carter and Ford indicates that
voters' initial reactions to Carter's image shaped their later voting behavior.
For Ford, initial reactions to issues played a larger role (Oshagan, 1988).
Research on Australian elections suggests that candidates' use of the media
can have a strong impact upon those who make up their minds about candidates
during the campaign. Such voters are more likely to be swayed by political
appeals than are people who have decided whom to choose before a campaign
starts. While partisan voters use the media because they are interested in
politics, undecided voters refer to media sources for information about parties,
candidates, and issues (Blood, 1991).
THE ROLE OF THE TELEVISED DEBATE IN ELECTIONS
observers consider the 1960 debate between U.S. presidential candidates Kennedy
and Nixon to be a textbook example of television-age political campaigning. It
has often been asserted that differences in the two candidates' television
personae accounted in part for Kennedy's election victory. Some, however,
dispute the significance of the televised 1960 debates, suggesting that while
visual cues undoubtedly have the potential to influence voter perceptions, the
nature and extent of the influence remain a matter of speculation (Vancil and
Debates involving candidates for the 1988 presidential nomination carry a
similar message. Results of a study of college students revealed the finding
that the winner of the 1988 debate was predicted by perceptions of the candidate
who projected the strongest personal image, the greatest credibility, the most
logical arguments, and the strongest emotional appeals. Furthermore, voter
preferences expressed after a first debate were strong predictors of eventual
candidate choice (Keyton, 1989).
In some political campaigns, even the lack of debates can have significance.
George Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign employed debate avoidance, a
reliance upon emotional appeals and ridicule, and a de-emphasis of issues. Both
of the major U.S. political parties have used such strategies, considered to be
departures from ethical behavior (Kelley, 1990).
INDIVIDUAL VOTER CHARACTERISTICS AND THE MEDIA
women react differently to the media analysis that generally follows political
debates. A study conducted at the University of Florida during the 1988
vice-presidential debates showed that females took less extreme views of
candidates after viewing post-debate analysis. By contrast, such analysis had
little effect on the extremity of views expressed by politically involved males
During the 1988 presidential campaign, the "gender gap," a perception that
men and women viewed the leading candidates differently, was much discussed.
George Bush's campaign planners were able to battle the gap through the way in
which the candidate was portrayed in advertising. One advertising approach was
to represent Bush as a law-and-order "Equalizer," who shared women's concerns
about street crime. Another technique was to underscore Bush's belief in
traditional family values. Thirdly, the campaign used ads that underscored the
candidate's ability to laugh at himself, as a way of showing his human side
Like gender, race plays a role in how people view social issues and even how
people respond to questions about such issues. Various studies have indicated
that a member of one race will answer questions from an interviewer of another
race in such a way as to avoid alienating the interviewer. It can be argued that
even when an interviewer and interviewee are of the same race, survey results
should be scrutinized carefully when the interviewer's questions concern a
candidate of a different race. What remains to be explored is whether race
should be treated as an uncontrolled variable in political surveys involving at
least one white and one black candidate. (Loge, 1989).
MEDIA COVERAGE AND CAMPAIGN AWARENESS
Whatever its positive
or negative effects, exposure to the news media does influence public awareness
of elections. In a study of the 1988 Southern "Super Tuesday" regional primary,
researchers found exposure to all media to be positively and significantly
related to voter awareness of the campaign, as well as to voter perceptions of
increased campaign activity and perceptions of increased Southern political
prominence. Exposure to partisan political information was found to be
significantly related only to perceptions of increased campaign activity
Educators need more information about the role of television in elections,
and particularly how television influences young voters. Among future voters,
television appears to affect their political attitudes. A study examined the
political views of 10- to 17-year olds and their parents before and after the
1988 election. While parents' attitudes seemed to be the greatest influence upon
the political socialization of the younger children, television appeared to be
the greatest influence upon the older ones (Sears and Weber, 1988).
The effect of media coverage of elections is visible on the local level as
well. Newspaper stories and advertisements can raise public awareness of
municipal and school board elections, to the extent that voter turnout increases
as a result (Luttbeg, 1988). Interestingly, a study of Philadelphia voters
suggests that media reliance (defined as identification of a particular medium
as one's main source of campaign information) is unrelated to campaign knowledge
and activity (Rosenberg and Elliot, 1989).
Between 1972 and 1988, there was an increasing tendency among the major news
outlets to report on the content of the political advertisements themselves. By
presenting segments of negative ads during newscasts, such news reports may have
had the effect of promoting the candidates whose commercials were being
discussed and legitimizing political advertising as a basis for political
decision making (Garner, et al., 1990).
In the 1992 presidential primaries, the public perceived the campaign as a
largely negative one, with candidates trading criticisms and allegations. As the
campaign has unfolded, would-be voters have given low marks to the news media.
An LA TIMES-MIRROR poll reported in the NY TIMES indicated that a majority felt
that the press had "too much" influence on who became President. The same NY
TIMES article cited a poll of Boston area residents, half of whom ranked news
coverage of the 1992 race as "fair" or "poor." A somewhat more generous view of
the news media emerged from a national survey by the Center for the People and
the Press, in which 65% of respondents described the 1992 election coverage as
"good" or "excellent." Still, a third of those surveyed called the reporting
"fair" or "poor" (Kolbert, 1992).
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Decision: Knowledge and Uncertainty." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of
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Engstrom, Erika, et al. (1989). "Evidence for Differential Effects on Males
and Females in the Wake of Post-Debate Analyses." Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
[ED 311 485]
Garner, Jane, et al. (1990). "Television News and Presidential Campaigns: The
Legitimization of Televised Political Advertising." Paper presented at the
Annual Convention of the International Communication Association. [ED 323 146]
Just, Marion, et al. (1990). "Thirty Seconds or Thirty Minutes: What Viewers
Learn from Spot Advertisements and Candidate Debates." Journal of Communication
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Kelley, Colleen E. (1990). "Bad Men 'Speaking' Well: A Case Study of
Political Campaign Ethics." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern
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Keyton, Joann, et al. (1989). "Political Values and Political Judgments:
Analysis of Responses to the 1988 Presidential Debates." Paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of the Southern Speech Communication Association. [ED 305 696]
Kolbert, Elizabeth. "As Political Campaigns Turn Negative, the Press Is Given
a Negative Rating," The New York Times, May 1, 1992.
Loge, Peter (1989). "Candidates of Race and Political Poll Results." Paper
presented at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Communication Association. [ED
Luttbeg, Norman R. (1988). "Role of Newspaper Coverage and Political Ads in
Local Elections." Journalism Quarterly 65(4), 881-88, 897. [EJ 408 441]
Nelson, Victoria (1989). "The Gender Gap and Women's Issues in the 1988
Presidential Campaign." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech
Communication Association. [ED 314 797]
Oshagan, Hayg (1988). "Looking at Voting as a Decisional Process: What
Factors Determine Initial Preference?" Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of
the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. [ED 301 911]
Rosenberg, William L. and W.R. Elliott (1989). "Comparison of Media Use by
Reporters and Public during Newspaper Strike." Journalism Quarterly 66(1),
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Sears, David O. and J.P. Weber (1988). "Presidential Campaigns as Occasions
for Preadult Political Socialization: The Crystallization of Partisan
Predispositions." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American
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Vancil, David L. and S.D. Pendell (1987). "The Myth of Viewer-Listener
Disagreement in the First Kennedy-Nixon Debate." Central States Speech Journal
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Walker, James R. (1990). "Developing a New Political Reality: Political
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