Honors Gov: Media Influence on Politics

george-bush-debates-on-cnn     Public officials at all levels of government work hard to both attract and shape media coverage. The most common way to do this is by staging an event and inviting the press. Presidential press conferences are an example of staged events.

Politicians also try to influence the press by granting interviews to reporters. Often they set ground rules that indicate what information reporters can use and how they can identify their source. When speaking on the record, politicians usually put their own spin on issues. Their goal is to convince both reporters and the public that their view of events is the correct one. They also try to include colorful sound bites that capture their main points in just a few words. They know that short sound bites are more likely to be run in news stories than are long speeches. Public officials sometimes use off-the-record conversations to float trial balloons. If the reaction is negative, the official can let the proposal die without ever having his or her name attached to it. Off-the-record conversations are also used to leak information to the press. They may want to expose wrongdoing, stir up support for or opposition to a proposal, spin the way an event is covered, or curry favor with reporters.

In 1960, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy participated in the first televised debate between two presidential candidates. Nixon, weakened by a bout of the flu, appeared nervous, awkward, and uneasy. His face looked pale and sweaty, all the more so because he did not allow the television producers to improve his appearance with makeup. Kennedy, in contrast, appeared confident, relaxed, and appealing. Those who watched the debate on television concluded that Kennedy had won. Those who listened on the radio considered Nixon the winner. The difference reflected not what the two candidates said about the issues, but rather the images they projected. This outcome underscored the growing importance of image over issues in political campaigns.

Advertising is expensive. Candidates spend up to 80 percent of their campaign funds, on paid ads. Media consultants use opinion polls to make sure that money is spent effectively. Political advertisements usually fall into two broad groups. The first group deals with issues, the second with images. Ads in either group can be positive or negative. Positive ads are aimed at making you like or respect a candidate, while negative ads are designed to make you dislike or fear his or her opponent. Both types of ads use persuasive techniques well known to advertisers.

Positive issue ads promote a candidate’s position on topics calculated to appeal to voters. A positive issue ad might highlight the candidate’s determination to improve funding for schools or to hold the line on taxes. Negative issue ads, on the other hand, criticize the opponent’s stand on issues of importance to voters. A positive image ad might show the candidate as a selfless public servant, a strong leader, or someone who cares about ordinary people. The candidate might be portrayed as a hero or as just plain folk. In contrast, a negative image ad might portray the opponent as weak, inexperienced, or lacking in integrity. Often negative ads include unflattering photographs of the opposition candidate. The desired effect is to convince voters that this person is somehow unfit for public office.

For all they spend on advertising, candidates and their media consultants work hard to attract news coverage as well. Almost all aspects of a campaign are designed to generate as much free publicity as possible. Often this is done by creating a photo opportunity for the candidate. A photo op is a carefully staged event designed to produce memorable photographs and video images.

National nominating conventions are also staged to attract maximum media coverage. In the past, conventions were dominated by long speeches and debates over the nominees and platform that bored television viewers. In response, parties have streamlined their conventions. Most serious business is completed off camera. Prime time speeches and events are designed mainly to promote the party’s ideas and candidates to the viewing public.

Studies of election news coverage show that most reporting falls into two distinct patterns. The first pattern, horse race coverage, treats an election as a sporting event. Horse race stories focus on who is winning and why. Issues are discussed only in terms of whether they will help or hurt the candidate’s chances. Opinion polls, often sponsored by a news organization, are used to track who is ahead or behind. The results of the polls are then covered by the media as campaign news.

The second pattern of coverage, soap opera stories, focuses on the ups and downs of candidates and their campaigns. Soap opera stories thrive on gossip, scandals, and personality. Questions of character are more important than issues. In their hunger for soap opera stories, reporters sometimes practice what has become known as gotcha journalism. The aim of gotcha journalism is to catch the candidate making a mistake or looking foolish.

At some point during a campaign, media consultants may advise a candidate to go negative. This means switching from a positive, upbeat campaign to negative campaigning, also known as mudslinging. The decision to go negative is not taken lightly. Polls show that the public dislikes attack ads. Going negative also leaves the candidate open to criticism for running a mean-spirited campaign.

Campaigns go negative because it works. Negative ads work by discouraging voters who might have supported a candidate under attack from going to the polls. Others contend, however, that negative campaigning actually stimulates voter interest. They argue that going negative works not by discouraging voting, but instead by causing more voters to go to the polls and choose a different candidate on Election Day. Like it or hate it, negative campaigning is part of our political tradition. How well it works depends on how you and voters like you react to what you see and hear during each election season.

Honors Gov Homework:
1. Constitution Unit Test – Friday 11/1
2. SSA Health Care Paper – due Friday 11/8

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