PS 475 Lecture Outline:

Conflicting Explanations of News Coverage of Elections and Politics in General



I.     Introduction, overview

A.   Different theories with different focus, explanations of the source of the coverage, analyses, diagnosis of problems and remedies for fixing them.

II.   Larry Sabato, Thomas Patterson and other media critics: What’s wrong with news coverage of elections (and politics in general) and why is this the case, and what are the remedies, if any?  


A.   What’s wrong with news coverage?

1.        News coverage is too negative

2.        News coverage is trivial, focusing too much on the game, the horse-race and conflict instead of issues and policies

3.        News coverage places too much emphasis on entertainment

4.        Other criticisms of news coverage of presidential primaries:

a)     News coverage places too much emphasis on front-runners in primaries

b)    News coverage is too critical of front-runners

c)     News coverage tends to give too little attention to third-party candidates and candidate who aren’t front-runners

d)    News coverage places too much emphasis on early primaries in small states


B.    Why is this the case?

1.        Journalistic values and choices


C.    How to remedy the problem?

1.        Change the nominating procedure, making it shorter, giving candidates free air time, make parties stronger, etc.

2.        Badger journalists to encourage them to make the right choices about what to cover and how.


III.     John Zaller’s Theory of Media Politics and News Coverage


A.   Who’s Responsible? Mutual constraints and contingencies affect the behavior of all three rational actors: journalists, voters and candidates.


B.    Assumptions about the Goals of Journalists, Candidates and Voters

1.        Journalists: Maximize their "voice" in the news

2.        Candidates: Use journalists to "Get Our Story Out"

3.        Voters: "Don’t waste my time"; "Tell me only what I need to know"

C.    Different goals lead to conflict among actors

D.    Conflict plays out in patterns of recurring behavior, or Behavioral Rules:

1.        The Rule of the Market

2.        The Rule of Anticipated Importance

3.        The Rule of Product Substitution

E.     Analysis: Use the above assumptions to derive deductions that can be assessed with empirical data

1.        First, why do journalists emphasize what Patterson and Sabato characterize as negative and trivial aspects of the campaign—i.e., the conflict and horse-race of political campaigns, according to Zaller?

2.        The Rule of the Market (Chapter 3)

3.        The Rule of Product Substitution (Chapters 4 , 5 & 7): deals with the “arms race” competition among journalists and candidates in elections

4.        The Rule of Anticipated Importance (Chapter 6): deals with journalists’ emphasis on front-runners and early primaries.


F.     How to Remedy the Problem?

1.        Is news coverage of elections problematic, according to Zaller?

2.        Are journalists to blame for any problems?

3.        Is a solution necessary?

4.        Is it possible to imagine alternative futures, using Zaller’s theory, or does it tend to emphasize the difficulty of changing behaviors, of shifting actors out of equilibrium? Does it tend to rationalize the status quo, or does it provide a more comprehensive understanding of what to change and how?

G.    See the discussion questions for Zaller