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Why Is News So Negative These Days?

Where Have All the Voters Gone? Series by Thomas Patterson
Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?
Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?
Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?
Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

In last week’s second installment of this five-part series, I discussed how changes in the nature of campaigning have contributed to the decline in voter involvement during the past four decades. That decline extends to voting in primary and general elections and to attention to televised debates and other forms of election communication.

In this installment, I describe how changes in news reporting, including the coverage of campaigns, have diminished the appeal of election politics. Evidence for this argument comes from the Vanishing Voter Project (www.vanishingvoter.org) that I co-directed at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy during the 2000 campaign. Through weekly national surveys, we interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the course of the campaign to discover why they are disengaging from elections.

The Bad News Chorus

On the network evening newscasts during the 2000 general election, George W. Bush’s coverage was 63 percent negative in tone and only 37 percent positive. Al Gore’s coverage was no better. A good deal of Bush’s coverage suggested that he was not very smart. There were nine such claims in the news for every contrary claim. Gore’s coverage was dotted with suggestions he was not all that truthful. Such claims outpaced rebuttals by seventeen to one.1

Although the press is often accused of having a liberal bias, its real bias is a preference for the negative. The news was not always so downbeat. When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon sought the presidency in 1960, 75 percent of their coverage was favorable in tone and only 25 percent was unfavorable. By the 1980s campaign, however, election news coverage had reached a point where more than half of it was negative. Since then, no major-party presidential nominee has received on balance more positive news than negative news over the course of the campaign.2

This change is attributable in part to the poisonous effect of Vietnam and Watergate on the relationship between the journalist and the politician. A larger influence, however, has been the emergence of an interpretive style of reporting. In the 1960s, this style began to supplant the older descriptive style where the journalist’s main goal was the straightforward reporting of the facts of events. Since the facts were often based on what newsmakers had said or done, they had considerable control over the coverage they received. Much of the “good press” that Kennedy and Nixon received in 1960 came from what they themselves said about their candidacies. On the other hand, interpretive journalism thrusts the reporter into the role of analyst and judge. The journalist gives meaning to a news event by supplying the analytical context. The journalist is thus positioned to give shape to the news in a way that the descriptive style did not allow. The power of the journalists to construct the news is apparent from the extent to which their voices now dominate the coverage. Whereas reporters were once the passive voice behind the news, they now get more time than the newsmakers they cover. On the nightly newscasts, the journalists covering Bush and Gore in 2000 spoke six minutes for every minute the candidates spoke.3

The shift in the style of reporting from a descriptive to an interpretive form began in the 1960s when the television networks launched their 30-minute evening newscasts and expanded their reporting staffs in order to deliver picture-based news. The networks quickly discovered that descriptive reporting was too flat for the television medium and that viewers did not have to be told things they could see with their own eyes. Gradually, the networks developed a narrative style of reporting built around interpretive themes that gave their news stories a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Several years later, the daily newspapers followed suit. To add value to stories that their readers had already heard on the newscasts, newspapers developed an analytical style of coverage that focused on the “why” as well as the “what” of news events.

Interpretive reporting has unleashed the skepticism traditional in American journalism. This style requires reporters to give shape to the news, and they tend naturally to shape it around their perspective on politics. To the journalist, politics is not a struggle over policy issues. They see it largely as a competitive game waged between power-hungry leaders. Politicians’ failings and disputes are played up; their successes and overtures are played down.

The 1996 Republican nominating race is a case in point. The media analyst Robert Lichter examined the GOP hopefuls’ television ads and stump speeches. Over half the ads (56 percent) were positive in tone and nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of the assertions in the candidates’ speeches were positive statements about what they hoped to accomplish if elected. These dimensions of the Republican campaign were seldom mentioned in news reports. The candidates’ negative ads and their attacks on opponents filled the news. “Forget about the issues,” ABC’s Peter Jennings said of the Republican race, “there is enough mud being tossed around . . . to keep a health spa supplied for a lifetime.”4

The tone of news coverage affects people’s opinions of candidates for public office. A study of the 1960-1992 campaigns found that negative impressions of presidential candidates increased step by step with the increase in negative coverage.5 Gallup polls provide another indicator of the effect of the increase in negative coverage. Between 1936 and 1968, Barry Goldwater was the only major-party presidential nominee who had a more negative than positive public image at the end of the campaign. Since 1968, in the era of interpretive journalism, a third of the presidential nominees have been perceived unfavorably and another third have had marginally favorable ratings. Negative news is not the only reason Americans are dissatisfied with politics and elections, but it is among those reasons and, as their dissatisfaction has risen, so has their inclination to stay home on Election Day.


1 See, Robert Lichter, “A Plague on Both Your Parties: Substance and Fairness in TV Election News,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 6, no. 6 (Summer 2001): 16; Project for Excellence in Journalism data, web download, March 7, 2002.

2 Patterson, Out of Order, ch. 1.

3 Lichter, “Plague on Both Parties,” p. 17.

4 “The Bad News Campaign,” Media Monitor 10, no. 2 (March/April 1996): 3-6.

5 Patterson, Out of Order, ch. 1.