«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
A sex scandal is essentially a dramatic and entertaining event that stirs up audience interest, eventually translating into increased revenues from advertisers who want to reach wider markets (McManus, 1994; 1995; Hamilton, 2004). Regardless of a sex scandal’s impact on public opinion of elected officials, or on the electoral fortunes of officials involved, the media focus on sex scandals for the human-interest factor. Financial scandals can certainly be dramatic and engender significant amounts of news coverage, but sex scandals are particularly exciting human dramas that illustrate the very ordinary flaws of extraordinary citizens (Dagnes, 2011).
Third, sex scandals are relatively easy for both the journalist and the audience to understand. Sex scandals typically involve only a few actors, and the natural human conflict at the heart of a sexual indiscretion such as an extramarital affair is easily conveyed by the journalist and easily interpreted by the audience. Financial scandals are relatively more complex
comprehend the magnitude of the transgression. The press should therefore tend to focus less on financial scandals, even though financial scandals may have more profound consequences for democratic and legislative processes than do sexual indiscretions (Thompson, 1995).
Finally, media have increasingly limited budgets to pursue original and investigative political reporting (Arnold, 2006; Patterson, 2013). With increasingly limited budgets come staff reductions and the need to cover political events that do not require extensive amounts of personnel or economic resources. Sex scandals typically meet these criteria. The average sex scandal does not require the same amount of resources to cover than does the average financial scandal. Whereas a financial scandal might involve multiple interviews and long-term investigation, information about a sexual scandal is typically given to a reporter by members of the rival party or stumbled upon by curious journalists (Entman, 2012; Marion, 2010). The personnel and resources that the press devotes to sex scandals is minimal compared to that required to investigate financial scandals. For these reasons, it is expected that media coverage of political sex scandals tends to be greater than media coverage of financial scandals. Formally, H1: Sex scandals will receive more frequent media coverage than financial scandals.
For-profit media organizations have audience-motivated, economic incentives to cover sex scandals, no matter the severity or repercussions sex scandals have on public opinion, electoral outcomes, or the lawmaking process. Sex scandals appeal to the media’s bottom line, which is establishing a sound financial footing (Hamilton, 2004; McManus, 1994; 1995), even though it plausible that financial scandals matter more for democracy.
“Hard News” and “Soft News.” Since the 1960s, the press has focused on selling news products using dramatic and sensational narratives (Gans, 2004; Patterson, 1994; Schudson,
entertain and captivate rather than information meant to enlighten (Epstein, 2000). In one famous
memo, NBC Nightly News producer Reuven Frank explains the need for drama in news stories:
Frank wrote his memo in the 1960s. In this sense, “soft news” that focuses on entertaining and dramatic narratives has been a staple of mainstream news production for over 50 years. News is a commodity that is bought and sold and entertaining narratives that contain elements of “fiction” and “drama” are needed for news products to compete in the marketplace.
Yet the demand for soft news content, and the market pressure for news organizations to produce this type of content have increased steadily since the 1960s (Patterson, 2013). With the advent of cable television and the Internet, audiences were offered more entertaining alternatives to the nightly news and the “hard” public affairs news typically found in major daily newspapers.
Not only did cable TV and the Internet offer news consumers more entertaining and interactive news products, they offered audiences a vast array of “pure” entertainment options such as film, made-for-TV movies, music streaming, pornography, social networking and interpersonal applications, video games and so on (Fallows, 1997; McChesney, 2004; Patterson, 2013).
The mainstream press has responded to increasing numbers of entertainment options by trying to appeal to specific audiences with specific tastes. Major daily newspapers and the National Public Radio system now attempt to reach “hard news” audiences who want substantive public affairs information (Hamilton, 2004). Network news has responded by becoming even “softer.” Cable TV networks and online outlets tend to provide arguably the most sensational
fragmented, it is possible that major daily newspapers and radio news pay little attention to political sex scandals and focus more attention and resources on investigating deeper forms of financial corruption. In order to appeal to their own niche audience, network television, cable television, and online news outlets may spend more time discussing the latest salacious sex scandal than the comparatively dry details of the average financial scandal. Formally, H2A: Media sectors that tend to focus on “hard news” – newspapers and radio – will cover financial scandals more frequently than sex scandals.
H2B: Media sectors that tend to focus on “soft news” – network TV, cable TV, and online news – will cover sex scandals more frequently than financial scandals.
If newspapers and radio programming tend to focus on delivering hard-hitting public affairs content on political corruption, television and online news outlets are just as attentive to the kind of soft news qualities that are inherent in political sex scandals.
It is possible, however, that specific news sources within each broad media sector – newspapers, radio, network TV, cable TV, online – cater to particular niche audience. While newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and radio shows like NPR’s Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation may spend significant airtime discussing financial corruption in Congress, other radio programs may give such scandals comparatively little attention. The agenda of these specific outlets may diverge greatly from other outlets within their sector. Similarly, issues that are discussed on The Today Show will not perfectly correspond with the mainstream news agenda because these shows cater to specific demographics, particularly younger female viewers (Hamilton, 2004). The same is true of programming on other early morning programs like CBS’s The Early Show and ABC’s Good Morning America. Online news outlets that must compete for audience attention among a multitude of alternative Internet sources must increasingly create soft
attention-grabbing content that will appeal to younger demographics. Stories about political sex scandals fit this description. This study therefore posits competing expectations about particular “hard” and “soft” news outlets within each media sector.
Formally, this study expects that:
H3A: “Hard news” sources The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and NPR news programs Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation will more frequently cover official financial misconduct than sexual misconduct.
H3B: “Soft news” sources The Today Show, The Early Show, Good Morning America, and The Huffington Post will more frequently cover official sexual misconduct than financial misconduct.
While the agendas of these outlets may often overlap, each outlet will also be driven by specific, supply- and demand-side considerations that influence scandal coverage. Although the recession and the Internet have taken a toll on newsroom budgets in recent years, the extensive economic and personnel resources at the disposal of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal may allow for more investigative reporting of complex and far-reaching political scandals involving money trails and financial deception. Likewise, PBS and NPR have extensive resources to investigate cases of financial wrongdoing in the political sphere. The same cannot be said of morning current events outlets Good Morning America or news sites like The Huffington Post that are expected to turn a profit by bringing in consistent ad revenues. On the demand-side, The Times and NPR’s audiences tend to be older and more politically informed viewers who want meaningful public affairs news, while outlets like The Early Show seek younger and less informed demographics who increasingly want sexiness over substance.
Partisan Influences and Niche News. Coverage of financial and sexual scandals may also be influenced by partisan treatment of scandal allegations. Recent changes in the media environment and in how audiences consume media may have broadly altered news agendas and
media environment is that news channels and audiences are increasingly divided along partisan lines (Stroud, 2008; 2010). This phenomenon has been deemed “partisan selective exposure” (Stroud, 2011) and refers to the tendency for partisans to select media content that is congruent with their political beliefs. Thus, to avoid news that may present contradictory views, Democrats now tend to self-select “liberal” media types like CNN whereas Republicans self-select “conservative” media types like Fox News Channel (Feldman, 2011; Stroud, 2011).
Experimental evidence provides considerable support for partisan selective exposure, finding that even non-political news stories are chosen based on the partisan slant of a news source (Iyengar & Hahn, 2009). Major network news on ABC CBS and NBC may still gear stories and advertising content toward ideologically moderate audiences, but with increasing competition between networks, cable news and talk radio target specific types of news viewers– i.e., political partisans. Cable channels and radio have thus created partisan “niche news” (Stroud,
2011) tailoring content to particular audience segments that enjoy consuming politically agreeable news while avoiding broadcasts that may challenge their views.
Since at least 2003, the news agendas of cable television outlets have become increasingly fragmented along partisan lines, providing biased patterns of coverage to political events that, in turn, have lasting effects on audience perceptions and attitudes (Morris, 2005;
Stroud, 2011). Coverage of political scandal is not exempt from partisan biases (Entman, 2012;
Puglisi & Snyder, 2011). Officials are often incentivized to make allegations about transgressions involving members of the opposition party in order to damage their reputation and delimit their political power (Schudson, 2004; Thompson, 2000). Political outlets that report through a partisan lens offer a ready platform for officials to make allegations abut opposition
provide more frequent coverage to Republican scandals, while Republican-leaning outlets (Fox News Channel) tend to provide more frequent coverage to Democratic scandals. Stated formally, H4A: Republican-leaning cable television news outlets (Fox News Channel) will provide more frequent coverage of scandals that affect Democratic officials.
H4B: Democratic-leaning cable television news outlets (CNN) will provide more frequent coverage of scandals that affect Republican officials.
Partisan news outlets have their own news agendas that may indicate different patterns of covering scandal (Stroud, 2011). Partisan differences in scandal coverage may, in turn, have real world outcomes on audience perceptions. By downplaying likeminded partisan scandals, it is possible that partisan news audiences come to perceive their own party as scandal-free, while audiences view the opposition party as comprised only of crooks and sex fiends.
If an official can “survive” scandal publicity long enough to run for reelection, how do voters judge the official’s transgressions? Does the public place more emphasis on punishing officials accused of committing financial misconduct than those accused of sexual misbehavior?
There is growing scholarly debate about the effect of different types of scandals on public opinion of elected officials (Doherty, Dowling, & Miller, 2011). On one hand, experimental research demonstrates that the public is not overly punitive toward officials accused of sexual transgressions such as extramarital affairs (Carlson, Ganiel, & Hyde, 2000; Funk, 1996; Sigal, Hsu, Foodim, Betman, 1988), especially if the official is otherwise effective at their job and the indiscretions do not invoke gender or racial stereotypes (Berinsky, Hutchings, Mendelberg, Shaker, & Valentino, 2011; Carolson et al, 2000). Survey research, on the other hand, demonstrates that financial and sex scandals produce equally negative public evaluations, or the
clear that all types of scandals can have deleterious effects on individual officials (Basinger, 2013; Dimock & Jacobson, 1995; Groseclose & Krehbiel, 1994; Jacobson & Dimock, 1994;
Praino, Stockemer, & Moscardelli, 2013; Welch & Hibbing, 1997), parties (Maier, 2011), and institutions (Bowler & Karp, 2004), it remains uncertain whether voters punish officials accused of sexual dalliances more harshly than members accused of financial misconduct.
Theoretically, a “rational” public would be able to account for the relatively high amount of political and social damage that financial scandals create, punishing the accused severely.
Since sex scandals typically occur within the private sphere and affect a handful of individuals, a rational public would likewise account for the minimal impact sex scandals have on an official’s ability to govern, or on society in general. Indeed, previous research shows that the American public tends to discount the private sexual dalliances of public officials, especially if the official is otherwise effective (Lawrence & Bennett, 2001; Sonner & Wilcox, 1999).