Journalists were much more likely to rely on academic experts when their coverage of midterm congressional elections focused on political strategy than when it focused on public policy issues, finds a new study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.
Bethany A. Conway-Silva, an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, analyzed news articles from across the United States to see what journalists wrote about toss-up congressional races in 2014. She looked at the 29 races that received the most news coverage — those garnering 10 or more news articles during the two months prior to Election Day.
What Conway-Silva found was concerning, she said in an interview with Journalist’s Resource: Journalists often included academic scholars, researchers and political strategists in stories about candidates’ efforts to win their elections. But they were much less likely to include such experts in stories that offer substantive information about public policy issues or problems facing local constituents.
In fact, news sources categorized as experts — who were primarily professionals in academic fields — were almost 17 times more likely than other types of sources to be included in coverage that focused on midterm elections as a competitive game. This type of coverage, which Conway-Silva refers to as “strategic game frame” coverage, is also commonly known as “horse race” coverage.
Meanwhile, experts were about 0.82 times less likely than non-experts to be associated with issue-related coverage, according to the study.
Conway-Silva said it’s problematic that journalists are more likely to use academic subject experts, who are powerful sources of information, in coverage that may be harmful to the public.
Previous research has found that game frame coverage has negative consequences. A review of 32 studies, published in October 2018 in Communication Research, finds that it “leads to a specific public perception of politics that is dominated by a focus on political actors’ motivations for gaining power rather than their substantive concerns for the common good.” That research review also indicates that audiences exposed to game frame coverage “are more critical of news stories and consider them to be less credible, interesting, and of low quality.”
Conway-Silva said it’s important for journalists to rely on academic experts to help inform stories about public policy issues and the concerns of local voters.
“Experts within the academic realm, they have a lot to say about issues and about problems and solutions,” she told Journalist’s Resource. “Perhaps they’re being underutilized or just not utilized in the way that’s most beneficial.”
Conway-Silva questioned whether college faculty and other experts should be wary of how they might be used in news coverage.
“As academics, if we are being called to weigh in on a campaign … we might want to ask, ‘Wait a minute — how am I being used?’” she said.
For her study, Conway-Silva examined the work of 29 newspapers, primarily local or regional publications such as the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald. From each newspaper, she randomly selected 10 articles published between Sept. 1, 2014 and Nov. 4, 2014 that focused on toss-up midterm congressional races.
Here are some of the other key takeaways:
- News sources with obvious political ties were likely to be included in game frame coverage. For example, people identified as being Republican were 1.7 times more likely to be associated with game frame coverage than people who not identified as being Republican.
- Government officials were nearly five times more likely to be associated with issue-related coverage than sources not affiliated with the government. While many journalists consider government officials to be experts, Conway-Silva did not categorize them as such.
- Of the 1,899 news sources analyzed, 54 percent appeared in game frame stories, “undermining the assertion that strategy frames are mainly found in national, rather than local, coverage of politics,” Conway-Silva writes.
Looking for more research on game frame coverage? We’ve written about game frame coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, discusses the news media’s extensive “horse race” coverage in his December 2016 report, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.”