«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Regardless of the power of the press in promoting scandal, scandal publicity adds legitimacy to official claims of misconduct, resulting in real world electoral outcomes. Whether the press is responsible for removing officials from office, or whether it acts simply as a conduit for partisan politics, the press inevitably brings unwanted attention to the seamy underside of the political world. The economic incentives and institutional routines that motivate scandal coverage have for-profit media habitually scrambling to the latest scandal, the democratic or legal ramifications of the scandal notwithstanding. Can the press, or should the press change its ways?
If one conceives the press to be a intermediary political institution, a “Fourth Branch of Government” that keeps citizens aware of government corruption, then the press should “properly calibrate” coverage to the level of the accused misconduct (Entman, 2012). The press could become more active in sorting the trivial and entertaining from the mundane and severe forms of political corruption transpiring in the hallowed halls of government. As it stands, the
of scandal with a knee-jerk reflex. Scandal coverage is almost an involuntary response to the new and sensational, and while individual reporters may deliberate on how much attention a particular scandal should be paid, this study makes clear that the journalistic community does not weigh carefully the import of a given case of official misbehavior. If they did, financial scandals that violate democratic norms would generate more coverage, on average, than sex scandals.
This study adds to a growing body of work (Entman, 2012; Fallows, 1997; Iyengar & Kinder, 2010; McChesney, 2004; Patterson, 1994; Patterson, 2013) that suggests that the press is ill equipped to handle the intricacies of official behavior. The press has the ability to ignore the lesser evils of elected representatives in favor of investigations that expose deeper forms of government corruption. Yet at the first whiff of a sensational story, and with official claims of misconduct at their disposal, the press responds with vigor. In the short term, this may generate public attention, potentially garnering more advertising revenue. However, the media also runs the risk of alienating their audiences through overzealous coverage (Marion, 2010) that focuses on infotainment and sensationalism. In the long term, public confidence in the news media’s ability to report important information about government may be eroded if the press continues to focus on the trivial and inane controversies that afflict government personnel. What kinds of actions could individual journalists and editors, and the press as a whole, undertake to provide more accurate and balanced coverage of political scandal? There are several steps the press could take to adjust its coverage to correspond to the severity of a political scandal.
Based on this study’s findings, there are several recommendations that may better calibrate scandal coverage to the severity of the alleged misconduct. Some of these
to the seriousness of scandal. Others may seem like radical suggestions or unworkable solutions to the problem. In the long term, such recommendations may move from the realm of fantasy to reality, becoming more plausible as scandal coverage continues to miss the mark.
Set Institutional Standards for Coverage. Journalists may argue that an official’s sexual misconduct may reveal something essential about their character that voters need to know in order to make informed democratic decisions (Entman, 2012). This study does not suggest that sex scandals should go publicity free. Sex scandals may indeed reveal a troubling pattern of abuse that suggests more serious offenses may be committed. However, an extramarital affair may reveal only that an official is suffering through a lonely marriage and has acted in a way that other people perceive as sexually deviant. Is it the job of the press to cover such private affairs, particularly if they pose no serious legal threat or violate campaign promises? Some journalists may respond in the affirmative. Nevertheless ethicists argue that public figures still maintain a “zone of privacy” in which personal matters may be off limits to enterprising reporters (Nelson et al., 2002). Do sex scandals fall within this zone of privacy? One way the press could acknowledge sex scandals without overcommitting attention would be to ask set institutional standards for scandal coverage. Specifically, journalists could be required to address several critical questions about the details of particular scandal scenarios before pursuing coverage.
First, does the sexual misconduct involve a clear and egregious abuse of office? Sex scandals range from private extramarital affairs that affect only the persons immediately involved in a romantic entanglement, to scandals like that of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that include the abuse of taxpayer money to fund sexual liaisons in foreign
private behavior, then such a scandal may warrant more extensive coverage.
Second, does the scandal involve illegal activity? Journalists could gauge coverage of sex scandals by asking whether the accusations include criminal misconduct. While an extramarital affair may be the private business of a politician and his spouse, an extramarital affair that involves a minor, for example, indicates that the official is willing to break the law. Both forms of extramarital affairs may be considered sexually deviant. Yet the latter type involves an additional layer of misconduct that damages the moral authority of the elected official. It indicates that the leader is willing to flout the rule of law, not simply social mores regulating how people should behave sexually. And such an accusation may warrant additional media attention.
Third, does the scandal violate campaign promises or policymaking objectives and promote a sense of hypocrisy? There is some debate about whether leaders should be held accountable for not meeting every campaign promise made during election season (Nelson et al., 2002; Patterson, 1994). The media tend to take representatives to task for unfulfilled campaign promises, even though the realities of governing often prevent candidates from fulfilling their promises once elected. While politicians rarely make specific promises about “not cheating” on their spouse, they sometimes make claims to moral leadership, or “restoring a sense of morality to Washington” upon election to political office. Constituents may perceive leaders who make such moral claims, and who pursue “moral [policy] agendas” while secretly engaging in what may be perceived as immoral sexual activity, as hypocrites. A case could be made that the media should pay more attention to these scandals, since they present a conflict between the official’s private behavior and their behavior as a candidate and as an elected representative.
Bok’s (1999) “test of publicity.” This test forces the decision maker – the reporter, in this case – to first consult their own conscience regarding the nature of their decision. How will non-stop coverage of a sex scandal damage the politician’s reputation? What about the politician’s spouse? What about his or her family? Second, Bok (1999) suggests that the decision maker should seek advice from friends and colleagues who can provide a detached but expert assessment of the situation. For a reporter assigned to cover a sex scandal, this may mean consulting journalists at other organizations. The key is start a dialogue about the scope and impact of the decision, in this case, the extent of coverage a sex scandal should receive. Finally, Bok (1999) suggests the decision maker should consult individuals who would be affected by the decision, or in lieu of this, engage in a hypothetical conversation with the individuals affected.
Here the idea is to raise objections that the individual reporter or the reporter’s colleagues may fail to realize, with the ultimate goal of Bok’s (1999) test being to come to an ethical decision.
Imagine a media environment in which journalists were forced to confront the three questions mentioned above and Bok’s (1999) test of publicity. If such institutional guidelines were mandatory, the majority of sex scandals would likely receive little or no attention. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair, for instance, may never have created such a stir had the media answered these questions before investigating. In fact, the Lewinsky affair may not have come to public attention at all. How would a lack of attention to the Lewinsky scandal affected perceptions of Clinton, or the media, or the Republican opposition? By 1998 it was already well known that Clinton was not the most faithful spouse, as much media attention had already been paid to previous scandals. If they had ignored the Lewinsky scandal, the media would not have suffered any backlash from the public for paying too much attention. The same would be true of
scandals in the process (Zaller, 1998). In sum, the trust that the public places in the “watchdog” press, the president and the congress may have been better off without any attention being paid to the Lewinsky scandal. This is mere speculation about a reality that does not exist. Were the media willing to adopt a standard for gauging scandal coverage, however, the Lewinsky scandal and that of Anthony Weiner’s would have never made headline news.
Don’t Further Incentivize Partisan Scandal Warfare. One reason that sex scandals may generate relatively more coverage than financial scandals is that opposition party officials know sex scandals will receive ample coverage. In this way, scandal coverage is like the chicken and the egg. It’s a problem of endogeneity, to put it in more technical terms. The question is which variable causes the other? Do partisan officials pay attention to the other side’s sexual misbehavior knowing that repeated statements about the scandal will create a media firestorm, or does the tendency for media to scrutinize sex scandals motivate partisans to pursue allegations of sexual misconduct? These are difficult questions to answer based on the available evidence. And yet the history of modern scandal coverage suggests both causal mechanisms may be at work.
Partisans are likely aware that the media will lock on to accusations of misconduct, causing an image problem for the party that will eventually result in an official resignation and relinquishment of actual power. Meanwhile, the fact that it is journalistic routine to pay attention to official statements, and the evidence put forth here showing that the press pays substantial amounts of attention to political scandals, gives incentives for partisans to pursue scandals of even the most trivial, sexual variety. One way to disrupt this scenario is for blanket refusals to engage in partisan scandal warfare, to ignore partisan claims about sexual dalliances.
institutional routines dictate that reporters rely on official sources for coverage, reporters who ignore partisan claims of sexual misconduct may risk alienating and losing their sources. A reporter’s ability to “work their sources” is in many ways the foundation of his livelihood.
Moreover, partisan deliberation and debate is supposed to be a major part of front-page news (Schudson, 1981). So, why shouldn’t a reporter follow up on official statements about sexual misconduct? After all, one role of a democratic press is to relay political information to the public, and what is a political sex scandal but political information? And isn’t it unfair to tell journalists how to do their job, when the First Amendment protects their speech?
All of these concerns are warranted. The fact remains, however, that by giving a platform to trivial partisan scandal warfare, journalists may inadvertently undermine the very principles that protect their speech. It may be a journalist’s job to report political information, and it is essential for the journalist to do so in an uninhibited fashion. Reporting on sex scandals may generate audience interest, at least for a time, and enhance a news organization economically.
Nevertheless, by devoting wall-to-wall coverage to partisan bickering over trivial sexual minutia, the press may give credence to critics like Representative Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who suggested the press is overly partisan, focused on entertainment rather than hard-hitting public affairs and should therefore be curtailed (Stelter, 2010). By focusing on entertaining sex scandals, the press may give more value to arguments that threaten their constitutional guarantees.
Consider Long-Term Audience Interests and Benefits. If the media produces news “products” for “consumers” (Hamilton, 2004; McManus, 1994; 1995) it should be wary of alienating its consumer base. Important to this recommendation is that what is more sensational and entertaining and flashy is not always what is best for the “consumer” or the citizen. What is
Would a car company risk building expensive, flashy sedans that occasionally and spontaneously explode if it knew that the public would find out and cease buying the car? Would a clothing retailer sell a luxurious, flamboyantly colored and popular line of shirts that also contained highly toxic chemicals if it thought the public would discover the deception and stop buying the line? Would the news media continue to publicize sensational but trivial information about political sex scandals while downplaying deeper forms of government corruption if news producers thought their audiences and advertising revenues would dry up? News is, in part, an information product. And citizens can drop any product like a bad habit.