News Coverage Propels Election Interest
Throughout the 2000 presidential race, the factor most closely associated with Americans' involvement in the campaign has been news coverage. When coverage increases, public involvement also rises. When it declines, so too does public involvement.
Since last November, the Shorenstein Center weekly national poll has tracked involvement in the presidential election by asking a cross-section of Americans adults whether they are currently paying attention to the campaign and whether they have recently thought or talked about it. When the campaign has received heavy coverage, people have been much more likely to think and talk about the campaign, and to give it their attention. "Our polls show that heavier news coverage produces deeper public involvement in the campaign," says Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington office. "Twice in 2000, it's been proven first during the February primary struggles and second during the Party conventions in August."
Of course, news coverage at some points in the campaign is a response to key events, such as an important presidential primary or a national party convention. These events trigger a heightened level of both news coverage and election interest. It is during other periods of the campaign when the independent influence of news coverage on interest is most evident. After the Super Tuesday primaries in early March, for example, news coverage of the campaign declined sharply and remained low until the summer conventions, as did election interest. After the conventions, news coverage declined less steeply, and has risen again in recent weeks. Americans' attention to the campaign has followed a similar pattern since the convention.
The role that news coverage plays in stimulating or inhibiting public interest may be among the most important of media effects during election campaigns. "We know from past research that a more involved public is likely to become a more informed and participatory public," says Tami Buhr, research coordinator for the Shorenstein Center. "As people become more interested in an election, they also are more willing to listen and learn, and more eager to go to the polls on Election Day."
In the last month of the 1996 election, the level of news coverage was about 40% lower than it was during the last month of the 1992 campaign. Dole trailed Clinton by a wide margin in the polls in 1996, and in the absence of a close race the press cut back on its coverage, which may have contributed to the decline in voter turnout. "If the 2000 election remains close, we can expect news coverage during the campaign's final weeks to exceed that of 1996," says Thomas Patterson, Shorenstein Center survey director and Bradlee Professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The combination of a tight race and heavy coverage could help to reverse the slippage in turnout that we saw in the last presidential election."
The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 September 17, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.
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