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Chapter 9

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DEMOCRATIC DEFICITS: CHAPTER 9 5/25/2010 4:32 PM 1 Chapter 9 Negative news One of the most popular explanations for any growth in public disaffection is based upon theories of political communications. Two alternative versions of this thesis can be distinguished in the literature. The first, arising from the theory of ‘video‐malaise’, focuses upon the type of media. This perspective argues that television broadcasting in general, and the accumulated effects arising from the standard tone of TV news reporting in particular, usually fosters public mistrust of government, dissatisfaction with regime institutions, and thus contributes towards civic d isengagement.1 A related argument shares similar concerns but it emphasizes the tone of media coverage, particularly the impact of watch‐dog journalism when covering scandals, malfeasance, and corruption in public life, irrespective of which media conveys such news. A steady diet of negative news is thought to encourage a rising tide of political disenchantment.2 Although plausible and popular claims, the evidence su pporting each of these arguments remains scattered and inconclusive. The concept of ‘negative’ news is far more complex in practice than is often assumed in popul ar commentary; for instance, studies have found that Americans distinguish between critical coverage of issues and ‘mud‐slinging’ personal attacks.3 Any impact from negative news may also prove highly contingent upon attitudinal predispositions; research suggest that the effects arising from strategic campaign news coverage and from negative campaign advertizing in the U.S. are mediated by citizens’ prior levels of political sophistication, partisanship, and involvement, as well as by their media habits and by the broader political climate.4 Moreover while many anecdotal cases of unethical behavior in public life are often cited – such as Watergate, Tangentopoli, and the Westminster expenses scandals – nevertheless the impact of revelations about these events on public opinion, especially on more diffuse levels of system support, remains unclear. The public may also be capable of distinguishing the type of scandal; after all, for all the immense publicity and the congressional expressions of outrage over the Lewinsky affair, President Clinton’s public popularity was found to have depended far more upon economic conditions than his sexual behavior, with the public rejecting elite frames. 5 Accordingly this chapter considers the arguments of alternative theories of media affects ‐‐ arising from habitual exposure to television news and from the amount of negative news coverage ‐‐ and then analyzes empirical evidence to test these claims. The chapter concludes that the cross‐national data considered here provides no support for the video‐malaise theory, instead, contrary to this perspective, regular exposure to television and radio news strengthened de mocratic aspirations and satisfaction with democracy, thereby reducing the democratic deficit. In addition, two detailed case‐studies in Britain and the United States are used to examine the impact of the extent of negative news coverage upon subsequent political attitudes. The results showed that in Britain, neither the amount of scandal coverage nor the degree of negative news depressed satisfaction with government. In the U.S., negative news also proved insignificant, although the amount of scandal coverage did depress approval of Congress. Complex patterns are therefore revealed in each country, rather than a simple narrative. The evidence from the British and American cases highlights the need for considerable caution in any sweeping claims about how journalism is to blame for any public dissatisfaction with government. I: Is television news to blame? The news media are thought to play a particularly important role in system support by priming citizens about the criteria which are most appropriate for evaluating the quality of democrati c governance, as well as by framing whether the performance of the government is perceived positively DEMOCRATIC DEFICITS: CHAPTER 9 5/25/2010 4:32 PM 2 or negatively against these standards.6 For many decades, theories of video‐malaise have dominated the literature, especially in the United States, although during the last decade this approach has come under challenge from a growing body of literature emphasizing the alternative ‘virtuous circle’ thesis. The modern idea of ‘videomalaise’ emerged in the political science literature during the turbulent 1960s. Kurt and Gladys Lang were the first to make the connection between the rise of network news and broader feelings of disenchantment with American politics. TV broadcasts, they argued, fuelled public cynicism by over‐emphasizing political conflict and downplaying routine policymaking in DC. This process, they suggested, had most impact on the ‘inadvertent audience’, who encountered politics because they happened to be watching TV when the news was shown, but who lacked much interest in, or prior knowledge about, public affairs7. In this view the general accumulated effect of exposure to television news coverage about government, politics and public affairs has negative consequences for system support. The idea gained currency during the mid‐1970s since the rise of television seemed to provide a plausible reason for growing public alienation in the post‐Vietnam and post‐Watergate era. Michael Robinson first popularized the term ‘videomalaise’ to describe the link between reliance upon American television journalism and feelings of political cynicism, social mistrust, and lack of political efficacy. Greater exposure to television news, he argued, with its high 'negativism', conflictual frames, and anti‐institutional themes, generated political disaffection, frustration, cynicism, self‐doubt and malaise.8 This perspective was taken up again by a series of authors during the early 1990s, when Thomas Patterson highlighted a pattern of growing negative


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