The mass media as sentinel:
Why bad news about issues is good news for participation
Paul S. Martin
This article argues that negative news coverage of politically relevant social issues stimulates political participation by shaping citizen awareness of collective problems and interest in politics. By drawing citizen attention to social problems that government may attend to, the press acts as a sentinel for the mass public, cuing them to periods when participation is more important. Drawing on an analysis of the 1974 National Election Study in combination with the Center for Political Studies’ content analysis of newspapers, I find evidence that bad news about issues is good news for participation.
Published by Political Communication, 25:180-193, 2008This article makes the case that political participation is partially conditioned on citizens’ perceptions of the state of the country, which are largely informed through mediated channels, specifically, newspapers and television news.1 In doing so, I try to explain the role of mass media as a force of political mobilization. Mass media serve as a conduit to social context by relaying key information about social conditions to citizens. The media continuously inform citizens about the world outside. Citizens, in turn, use this information in their decisions about whether to participate in politics or not. Consequently, the mass media serve as a sentinel to the public by cueing the public as to when it is important to participate in politics.
Interestingly, recent scholarship has both upheld the modern media as a vital institution that might aid in cueing citizens about when to pay attention to government (Schudson 1998) and accused the media of turning citizens off from government altogether (Cappella and Jamieson 1997). This argument takes a position closely connected to Schudson’s theory of the “Monitorial Citizen”, which suggests that modern citizens generally pay limited attention to government, but are alerted by the press as to when they should pay closer attention to government. I extend Schudson’s contention that the media serve as a cue to tell citizens when it is more important to pay attention to government by connecting this attentiveness directly to citizen participation through a social threat mechanism.
The argument is that (1) citizens become more and less active in politics depending upon their perceptions of conditions in the country and that (2) these perceptions are largely informed through media channels. In other words, citizens pay low levels of direct attention to politics; they survey the nation through the information provided by the mass media and become more active in politics when that information cues them to increasing national problems. In this way, the media contribute to citizens’ decisions governing political participation by relaying important information about the social and political context. When the media tell citizens that all is relatively well, the incentive to act in politics is weaker; yet, if the media tell citizens that the country is in turmoil, then the incentive to act becomes stronger. In short, bad news about issues is good news for participation.
A theory of media influence on participation
The idea that bad news could encourage voting may seem counter-intuitive because media negativity is often thought of as demobilizing citizens and making them cynical and disillusioned about politics (Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1995; Cappella & Jamieson 1997; Patterson 1993). Studies that emphasize a detrimental effect from media negativity examine mostly personal negativity associated with negative campaigns. Recent studies have challenged even these conclusions and have pointed to potentially positive influences of negative campaigns on voting (Freedman & Goldstein 1999; Kahn & Kenney 1999; Lau & Pomper 1998; Freedman, Franz, & Goldstein 2004; Martin 2004).
Issue negativity, on the other hand, points to the existence of problems in society, thereby identifying problems that may require government attention such as increasing crime, economic troubles, or inadequate health care. The effects of issue negativity have received considerably less attention than the effects of negativity targeted at campaign actors and political institutions, but the effects of issue negativity should not be overlooked. Indeed, they deserve emphasis. People learn of collective problems via issue negativity. Furthermore, compared to negative coverage of campaign actors, issue negativity is ubiquitous. Issue negativity exists within and outside of campaigns and continuously informs citizens about social conditions in the nation as a whole. Consequently, people become more aware of social problems and engaged in politics when exposed to higher amounts of issue negativity.
While media influence on politics is most often thought of in terms of direct persuasion (Page, Shapiro, & Dempsey 1987), agenda-setting and other cognitive effects (Iyengar & Kinder 1987), and reinforcing pre-existing beliefs (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet 1944), media influence is not limited to persuasion, agenda setting, and reinforcement. Media also influence politics in more subtle, but powerful, ways by informing beliefs about social reality that in turn shape political attitudes and behavior (e.g. Mutz 1998). Most often citizens either support or oppose policies and programs based on their media driven perceptions of social reality. Two examples illustrate this idea. First, citizens alter their support for incumbent politicians based on their perceptions of economic reality. When people perceive the economy to be doing well they reward incumbents and when they perceive the economy to be faring poorly, they punish incumbents (Fiorina 1981). Second, citizens alter their support for welfare state provisions based on their perceptions of the race and status of target groups being aided. Support for welfare provisions is stronger when the target groups are perceived to be either children or elderly and white, and support is weaker when the target groups are perceived to be of working age and black (Gilens 1996). If media alter or simply inform perceptions of social reality – how the economy is doing, how much crime we have, and who is poor – then the power of the press to influence politics is unquestionable.
Bad news and republican citizenship
To stimulate political participation, issue negativity must alter the motivation for voting. I argue that issue negativity simultaneously makes people more aware of problems and stimulates their interest in the campaign. Problem awareness motivates political participation via a social threat mechanism. Threat is widely seen to motivate the behavior and attention of organized2 and unorganized3 groups, and threat has become an increasingly important explanation for individual behavior. When organized interests are under threat, interest groups are able to increase membership and contributions (Hansen 1985). More importantly, when individuals are confronted with the threat of a policy change on specific issues that they consider to be important – such as abortion or the environment – they respond by contributing money to interest groups and volunteering for campaigns that will try to protect the existing policy (Miller & Krosnick 1999).
Threat, however, need not be in the form of grave immediate danger. In earlier research, scholars have found that candidate-based threat, measured as anxiety in response to candidates, encouraged people to learn more about the candidates, pay greater attention to the campaign, and alter their habitual patterns of voting behavior (Marcus & MacKuen 1993; Marcus, Neuman, & MacKuen 2000). During the 1980 Presidential election, citizens who perceived more threat in the political environment in response to Reagan and Carter were more likely to correctly place Reagan and Carter with respect to liberal/conservative policy positions (Marcus & MacKuen 1993:679). Moreover, citizens who demonstrated greater anxiety in response to George Bush and Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign were more likely to pay attention to the campaign and less likely to rely on partisan predispositions to make their vote choice (Marcus & MacKuen 1993).
The threat-mobilization hypothesis suggests that in the face of social threats – bad news about high unemployment or problems with health care, for example – citizens mobilize to counteract the perceived social threat in two ways. First, the awareness of social threats in the form of perceptions of collective problems provides an estimate of the importance of a given election as a symbolic event encouraging civic action. The more things that are going wrong, the more things government is likely to act on. Elections that are perceived to be about a broad array of social problems are likely to be thought of as more important than elections that are perceived to be covering a narrow array of social problems. At the individual level, a person who thinks that both the economy and health care are important issues is likely to see the election as being more important than a person who only sees only the economy or health care as an important issue. Citizens respond to perceived social threats as if they were external threats to the country – they rally and vote at higher rates.
Under this scenario, voting, and other affirming acts of civic engagement in response to perceived social threats can be explained, in part, as a symbolic act.4 As Sears and Funk suggest, “people may be socialized to respond to public issues in a principled and public-regarding manner” (1990:169). This notion is entirely consistent with republican models of citizenship starting with George Washington as “the modern Cincinnatus, forming the new nation, ruling without excess, and returning to ordinary life” (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton 1985:254). Citizens mobilize to counteract national problems and withdraw from participation when they perceive fewer problems.
Secondly, perception of threatening social conditions in the form of multiple social problems produces anxiety and increased attention to politics. These cognitive triggers – anxiety and interest -- translate into political participation. Many studies have found that when groups or individuals feel threatened by political actors or other groups they respond proactively. Marcus and MacKuen argue that threat is an attention-getting device and find that when citizens feel stronger threat or anxiety during political campaigns they are more likely to pay attention to campaigns and learn more about the candidates (1993; also Marcus et al. 2000). Citizens “abandon complacency and start to pay attention when the world signals that something is not right” (Marcus & MacKuen 1993:673). Threat is often translated into increased arousal and attention that would enable greater participation.
In sum, social threat incorporates an idea of republican citizenship that channels potential anxiety toward rather than away from participation. People participate in politics more when they believe that more is at stake in a given election based on their evaluation of collective problems, and they believe more is at stake when issue media is more negative. In this sense, they are rational actors, limited by imperfect information (e.g. Simon 1957; Simon 1985), who try to accommodate a flexible, republican sense of civic duty by participating more when they believe there are greater challenges in the social and political system. Hence, as Berelson and colleagues argued long ago, nonvoting may well be, in part, an expression of contentment rather than discontentment (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee 1954). Forgoing the opportunity to vote may be a passive expression of consent, especially for those who possess resources necessary to participate.5Hypothesis testing
The previous sections described a two-step model of media influence on voter turnout where negative issue coverage makes people more aware of collective problems and more interested in politics, which in turn stimulates voting. More formally, the two hypotheses are:
Higher levels of issue negativity will heighten problem awareness and political interest.
Individuals who are aware of more collective problems and more interested will be more likely to vote.
A combination of secondary analysis of survey data with content analysis is used to test the hypotheses in the first step of the model – that issue negativity motivates problem awareness and political interest. Secondary analysis of National Election Studies (NES) survey data is used to test the second step of the model.
Media influence on problem awareness and political interest
How exactly does issue-media influence problem awareness? The process is exceptionally simple and very similar to Zaller’s “receive-accept-sample” model of communication effects (1992). Zaller’s model, building off Converse (1962) and McGuire (1968), assumes that citizens vary in their ability to resist messages. Zaller’s model has two basic components – reception and acceptance – where acceptance is a function of political awareness or sophistication. The implication for the effect of issue media on problem awareness is that the least sophisticated will accept news on problems more readily than those who are more sophisticated.
Pr (attitude change) = Pr(Reception) X Pr (Acceptance|Reception)
Reception, however, is more complicated. Based on the psychological influence of positive and negative information, citizens are less likely to receive positive information than they are to receive negative information (Fiske 1980; Kahneman & Tversky 1984; Pratto & John 1991). They are also less likely to pay attention to or remember positive information (Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves 1996; Reeves, Lang, Thorson, & Rothchild 1989). Conversely, negative information is most likely to be paid attention to, remembered, and then used for judgment (e.g. Shields & Goidel 1998:108). Consequently, bad news is more likely than good news to influence problem awareness.6
News coverage is not the sole source of problem awareness. First, partisanship may bias estimates of national conditions so that people see more problems as a reflection of their partisan opposition to government (Fiorina 1981). For example, Republicans thought the economy was doing better than Democrats did in 1992 (Hetherington 1996). I measure partisanship using the direction and strength of the respondent’s partisanship using a seven-point scale. Second, demographic differences between people such as age, education, income, race, and gender are likely to influence citizens’ problem awareness for both individual and structural reasons. Education, for example, may influence problem awareness because of individual differences in public attention or awareness. But education may also influence problem awareness because of structural differences in the life experiences of the higher and lower educated. The more educated segment of society is likely to notice problems that affect higher status people, like the drops in the stock market, whereas lower educated people may see problems that influence lower status people more frequently such as unemployment. Likewise, lower income citizens are more likely to personally experience the kinds of problems that comprise politically relevant collective experience – crime, unemployment, criminal victimization, poor health care – but they are also less attentive to public affairs which may hinder them from connecting their private experiences to the larger collective experience (Mutz 1992).
In addition to these alternative causes on problem awareness, and as previously mentioned, political knowledge may significantly influence the way that people process news information (e.g. Zaller 1992). It is also necessary to control for political knowledge to distinguish the potential media effect of content from the characteristics of the consumer. Political knowledge is included in the model both to control for its direct effect and also as an interaction with negative media. As a surrogate for political information, the interviewer assessment of the respondents' political information is used (Bartels 1996; Zaller 1985). Zaller (1985) found that this measure is highly reliable.
The same psychological advantages of negative information should also drive the effects of bad news more directly to stimulate political interest, albeit in a simpler fashion. As news gets worse, it becomes more pressing and more engaging. In theory, interest rises because people become more aware of problems through exposure to bad news. The observable implications are that problem awareness and interest should increase when exposure to bad news is higher.
Estimating the influence of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest
To measure the influence of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest, I use the 1974 National Election Study (Miller and the National Election Studies 1999), supplemented with an extensive content analysis conducted by the Center for Political Studies (Miller, Miller, and Kline 1978)7 of the newspapers read by the respondents.8 The CPS analyzed the content and tone of ninety-six newspapers read by respondents in the 1974 NES survey. If at least seven respondents in the survey read a newspaper, the CPS selected the paper for inclusion in the study. Ten randomly selected days – October 16, 17, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30; November 1, 3 and 4 – were included in the content analysis. For each day, all articles appearing on the front page and editorial sections of the newspaper were analyzed. In all, the CPS analyzed 8768 front-page stories and 9458 editorial stories. Every article was coded originally for up to two subjects and up to two assessments of tone (one for each subject). So each article is represented by one or two stories depending on whether a second subject was coded. Hence, the unit of analysis is the story. Stories were originally categorized into subjects based on the primary and secondary (where applicable) emphases of the headline and story text. I re-categorized stories as pertaining to either the candidates or to social issues. The original study coded stories as campaign stories only if they did not fit into an issue category (e.g. public announcements of future speeches, personal stories, campaign statistics, candidate comparisons on style, or reporting on polls). Hence a story about one candidate’s criticism of another’s economic policy would be coded as an issue story and a candidate’s criticism of another’s personal life would be coded as a campaign story. I categorized the stories originally coded as campaign events, polls, and debates as candidate cases. I categorized stories originally coded to discuss economics, crime, social problems, and general news as issue cases.
The tone of the stories – negative, positive, or mixed – was originally assessed by determining whether the actors or editorialist in the story “criticized or praised the actions, positions, persons, or policies, etc., mentioned in the content” (Miller, Miller, and Kline 1978: 27).9 Issue negativity is measured as the proportion of national issue news stories that were assesses as being negative in tone. In addition to the proportion of stories that are negative, a count of the total number of stories is included as a control.
To measure problem awareness, I take a modified count of the number of problems a respondent answers to the open-ended question: “What do you think are the most important problems facing the country?” which is followed up with prompts to give up to two additional problems. If a respondent named two problems within the same category,10 the second mention was counted as one-half, so the measure is coded 0, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3. To alleviate concerns about the intensity of perceived problems, a second study conducted at the University of Oklahoma tested a follow-up question after the most-important problems measure where respondents were asked for each problem they listed, how much of a problem they believed the item to be. On a scale from 1 to 100, all three problems were rated nearly the same at 75, which provides some confidence that respondents do not mention problems they consider to be trivial.
The first dependent variable, problem awareness, is a borderline case for using either OLS or ordered probit. As measured, problem awareness is discrete and ordinal ranging from zero to three with six categories. The model was tested using OLS and retested using ordered probit analysis. The findings were essentially identical; the OLS results are presented.
The model is:
y(problem awareness) = b0(constant) +
b1(issue negativity) +
b2(total number of stories) +
b3(political knowledge) +
b4(political knowledge X issue negativity) +
The second dependent variable, political interest, is discrete and ordered, so an ordered probit analysis is used. The model is similar to that of problem awareness with one exception. Where the model of problem awareness model controls for the interaction of negative news and political knowledge, the model of political interest controls directly for problem awareness.
Effects of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest
The first column of Table 1 displays the tests of the effects of negative issue coverage on problem awareness. The results of the hypothesis testing are consistent with expectations: the proportion of negative news stories increases problem awareness (p<.05). The second row of Table 1 shows that the total number of stories does not influence problem awareness – it appears that tone matters more. These results hold when controlling for political knowledge and the interaction between negative stories and political knowledge.
[Table 1 about here]
As expected, those higher in political knowledge are more aware of collective problems. More importantly, the interaction of negative issue news and political knowledge is negative (p<.05). This result is highly consistent with the expectations of Zaller's "receive-accept-sample” model of media effects (1992). Those who have higher levels of political knowledge were less influenced by the negative coverage than those with lower levels of political knowledge. In other words, the least politically sophisticated are more likely to believe what they read.
The results of these tests suggest that when the newspapers read by the survey respondents in 1974 had a higher proportion of negative issue stories, the respondents became aware of more problems. And conversely, readers of newspapers with very little issue negativity were aware of fewer problems. In sum, the results support idea that citizens – especially those with lower political knowledge – develop their problem awareness in part as a consequence of the level of issue negativity in the newspapers they read.
The second column from Table 1 presents the effect of issue negativity on political interest. Just as the proportion of issue negativity influences problem awareness, so does it influence political interest. This finding alone is sufficient to suggest that issue negativity may indirectly influence political participation as political interest is well known to drive participation (see for example Marcus and MacKuen (1993). Even without considering the effects of issue negativity on political participation, these two findings from Table 1 ring consistent with the idea that the mass media acts as a sentinel when they feature bad news about issues: people become more aware of problems and their interest in politics increases.
From problem awareness to political engagement
Table 1 shows how issue negativity stimulated problem awareness and political interest. This section continues with the 1974 National Election Study and examines the second hypothesis: that problem awareness and political interest stimulate voting.
A long literature has examined why Americans vote or refrain from doing so. Most importantly, we know that voting is highly habitual (Plutzer 2002), suggesting that any media related effects would be relatively modest. Resources such as time, money, and education provide important gateways for individuals to access the political system (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady 1995), and prior research has both noted the importance of these factors in determining political participation and connected these resources to socio-economic status (age, income, race, education, and gender as the representation of the resource model). Standing motivation stemming from ideological or partisan extremity also plays a roll as those more ideologically invested in the current system are more likely to continue to participate (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes 1960). Party contact is also well known to be an important influence on voting (Rosenstone & Hansen 1993). Resources, standing motivation, and party-based mobilization are fairly consistent forces acting on citizen participation and provide a baseline with which to test effects that are more variable, such as problem awareness and political interest11 that is partly stimulated by bad news.
A second empirical consideration is disentangling the effects of problem awareness on voting from those of political knowledge on voting. A skeptical reader may be concerned that problem awareness is simply another measure of political knowledge.12 To seriously consider this point, the empirical model must examine the influence of political knowledge on this process. As problem awareness has the potential of being subsumed by political knowledge, observing the effect of problem awareness while controlling for political knowledge is important. Of equal concern, the influence of problem awareness on voter turnout may not be equivalent across citizens with varying levels of political knowledge. Specifically, those with medium levels of political knowledge are expected to see the greatest impact from problem awareness on voter turnout. Keeping in mind that the process of problem awareness influencing voting is akin to a persuasion model – persuading ones self that voting is important – it is precisely the medium knowledge folks who would be most influenced to change their voting behavior along the lines of their awareness of problems. The highly knowledgeable are well known to be most likely to vote and less in need of reasons to vote. The less knowledgeable are equally known to be least likely to vote. But more importantly, those with the lowest levels of political knowledge may be less adept at connecting perceptions of collective problems with their own political participation. It is those with medium levels of political knowledge whose participation is most likely to waver from election to election with problem awareness.
The model examining how problem awareness and political interest influence vote turnout is:
vote turnout = b0(constant) +
b2(interaction of problem awareness and medium knowledge)+
b3(interaction of problem awareness and low knowledge)+
b4(medium knowledge dummy)+
b5(low knowledge dummy)+
b6-11(Socio-economic Resources) +
b12-13(political interest & partisan extremity) +
b14(party contact) +
The model interacts separately problem awareness and medium knowledge, and then problem awareness and low knowledge, while controlling for medium and low levels of knowledge. High knowledge is the comparison group.
The findings in Table 2 show that the effect of problem awareness is strongly mediated by political knowledge in ways that are consistent with expectations. We see no direct effect from problem awareness, while the interaction between medium knowledge and problem awareness is positive and statistically significant (p<.05) and the interaction between problem awareness and low political knowledge fails to achieve statistical significance. These three findings collectively mean that the direct effect of problem awareness is channeled exclusively through those with a medium level of knowledge.
[Table 2 about here]
The other factors in the model are as one would expect. Those with lower and medium levels of knowledge are less likely to vote than are high knowledge individuals as indicated by the negative and statistically significant coefficients on lower and medium knowledge. Political interest positively predicts voting as does strength of partisanship and party contact. The representation of the resource model also performs as expected with positive effects on education, income, and age.
Keeping all other factors at their means, problem awareness strongly influences voting amongst those with medium knowledge. Those mentioning but a single public problem that they thought was important had a probability of voting at about 57%, those at the other end of the scale mentioning three distinct problems had a probability of voting at 71% (a difference of 14%). The average number of mentions for those with medium levels of knowledge was 2 with a standard deviation of .7. Moving one standard deviation from the mean changes the likelihood of voting by about 5%.
Discussion and Conclusion
The data used to test both hypotheses come from a unique source and a unique time. The 1974 CPS study remains unrivaled in the detail and extensiveness of its content coding of positive and negative stories (other projects have done content analysis in combination with surveys, but none to the author’s knowledge could adequately test the first hypothesis). The 1974 election also followed a particularly rough year. Nixon resigned on August 9th, Ford pardoned him on September 8th, and the Republican Party lost 48 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate in November. The American involvement in Vietnam was winding down, but would not be completed until after the election. Unemployment was at 6.6% and rising, the consumer price index neared 11%, and world oil prices jumped 252% in 1974 from $3.59 to $11.58 per barrel.
In spite of what appears to be a depressing year by any standard, the amount of bad news in the newspapers read by the survey respondents varies substantially. One vivid example comes from differences in the coverage of three Chicago-based newspapers included in the study. The Tribune ran 84 stories coded as negative, the Sun-Times ran 40, and the Daily News ran 27 stories assessed as negative. Readers of these three papers would get very different impressions of the levels of social, political, and economic problems facing the country. Cast in this light, 1974 offers a strong set of conditions to test the paper’s argument. It has a significant array of problems that people could be cued to, yet the range of bad news in the press is wide enough to have variation in the independent variable. In other words, the effects shown in this paper may be present in most election years, but there may not be enough variation in exposure to bad news to document them.
Still, the effects appear to be most pronounced in those with medium levels of knowledge. Taking into consideration the degree of problems facing the nation in 1974, these results suggest that while the press may play a sentinel roll along the lines implied by Schudson’s theory of the Monitorial Citizen, it may only do so with those who are moderately informed to begin with.
This research suggests is that citizens may become more active in politics if politicians and the press focused more on tackling social problems rather than tackling one another or putting candidates under the microscope. Contrary to conventional wisdom, media negativity need not be detrimental for democratic citizenship. Indeed, the media may serve as a sentinel to the people arousing them to participate when conditions seem bleak. Rather than decrying the press for being too negative, we may wish to encourage newspapers and media outlets that paint the world in rosy colors to put the thorns back into the picture.
While the central claim of this paper is that bad news may stimulate a sense of republican duty in the American citizenry, the findings also bear on the debate over the effect of negative advertising on voter turnout. One of the more troubling aspects of that debate has been the lack of specificity of clear mechanisms that could translate negative campaigns into political participation (see Martin 2004). One consequence of this lack of specificity has been inconsistency across research results (see Lau, Sigelman, Heldman, & Babbitt 1999). As Sigelman and Kugler (2003) neatly point out, citizens do not equally read campaigns as negative or positive, and therefore do not have consistent reactions to campaigns that scholars consider “negative”. While there could be many mechanisms that could effectively translate negative ads to political participation, the degree to which bad news or negative campaigns encourage people to see greater problems facing the country may help to further explain why some negative campaigns stimulate turnout and others do not.
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