Newspaper Coverage of Political Scandals
Each American political season seems to bring with it a new round of scandals. Though critics of the media often complain about frivolousness and overkill, the content of the scandals often demands serious and significant coverage. However, judgments by news editors and reporters do influence the volume and treatment.
A 2011 study from Harvard University and the University of Pavia published in The Journal of Politics, “Newspaper Coverage of Political Scandals,” used data from 32 political scandals and 200 newspapers over the past decade to determine any bias that newspapers with apparent political leanings employed in their coverage. The study did not distinguish between types of scandals – for example, financial versus sex scandals — nor did it take into account the prominence of the politician in question. The key measurement for bias is the volume of news coverage devoted to a scandal, something the researchers termed “agenda-setting.”
The findings include:
- Partisan-leaning editorial pages are strongly correlated with biases in the amount of reportorial coverage of scandals. Democratic-leaning newspapers devote significantly more attention to scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democrats, and Republican-leaning newspapers do the opposite. This apparent bias holds for scandals both local and national in origin.
- On average, a news organization with a higher degree of editorial endorsements for one political party will devote 26% more reportorial news coverage to a scandal involving a member of the opposite party.
- The partisan nature of the readership itself – when newspapers are read in a primarily Democratic or Republican area – only seems to have an effect on local scandals. Republican- or Democratic-leaning media give more coverage to scandals of the opposite party only when the politician is from the same state or congressional district where the newspaper is sold. This correlation between a partisan readership and news attention does not hold for out-of-state or national-level scandals.
- Evidence suggests that newspapers with larger circulations “systematically give more space to scandals, irrespective of the political affiliation of those involved.”
The study’s authors caution that the findings merely prove correlations, and the results do not prove that ideology always drive news coverage decisions. However, they conclude that newspapers cover political scandals “in systematically biased ways [that] appear to depend on the partisan positions of their publishers, editors and readers.”
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the National Bureau of Economic Research study "Newspaper Coverage of Political Scandals."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related Slate column "Too Much Weiner in Your Media Diet?"
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.