Discussion Questions for John Zaller’s,

A Theory of Media Politics: How the Interests of Politicians, Journalists, and Citizens Shape the News



1.     Zaller offers a very different explanation of patterns in news coverage than Thomas Patterson and Larry Sabato. What are some of the major differences, in your view? Outline some of the major patterns of news coverage identified by Patterson (and to a lesser degree, Sabato) and describe how Zaller’s explanation for many of these same patterns is different from Patterson’s.  Which explanation do you think has more validity in your view? Why?  

2.     Zaller describes his theory of election news as “loosely deductive” and inspired by Anthony Downs’ Economic Theory of Democracy.  What are his assumptions about the goals of candidates, media and voters?  How do these goals lead to the behavioral rules that Zaller posits and some of the major deductions of the theory? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the “style” of Zaller’s theory?

3.     The title of Zaller’s book, A Theory of Media Politics: How the Interests of Politicians, Journalists, and Citizens Shape the News, makes no mention of election coverage. In fact, Zaller (1-3) argues plainly that his theory is meant to be a general one that applies, with appropriate adaptations, to political news coverage in general. How well does Zaller’s theory apply to different types of political news coverage – say, the Middle East crisis, the war in Iraq, etc.—besides electoral politics?  If changes to Zaller’s theory are necessary, how might it be changed? Should the assumptions, actors and goals be modified to fit different areas of coverage or would a very different theory be required, in your view?

4.     How does Zaller’s coding of negative press coverage differ from Patterson’s?  Which is more valid in your view?  How does Zaller’s coding scheme affect his results? Does press negativity have any impact on who wins elections?  If not, then why study it? 

5.     Pick one of the three behavioral rules of news coverage of elections, as described by Zaller, and evaluate the empirical evidence that Zaller provides for the rule. How convincing is the evidence?

6.     In Zaller’s chapter on the Rule of the Market, evaluate the author’s assumption that elite journalists’ goals are like those of any other profession and his assumption that competition in large markets leads to tabloidization because voters’ interest in politics is so low.

7.     Which party’s candidates receive more negative coverage in presidential elections and why is this the case, according to Zaller?  Do you agree with his analysis here? Are there any other plausible explanations? Why do the parties differ in their press management styles? Is Product Substitution an explanation?

8.     Many media critics (e.g., Patterson) view press criticism of candidates as unwarranted and dysfunctional.  Zaller disagrees. Where do you stand?