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This study concludes by summarizing results in Chapter 5. Here, the study provides theoretical implications for citizens and political parties, and practical recommendations for news media organizations and journalists. Democracy depends on a press that’s “properly calibrated” to government malfeasance in order to survive. The sexual transgressions of our officials may be overlooked as long as they are still able to perform their jobs as elected representatives. And while it may be true that “the press is in the news business, not the business of politics” (Patterson, 1994, p. 36), the press’ adopted role as government watchdog suggests that journalists should take an active role in accounting for the severity of scandal claims before reporting. The press has incentives to ignore or downplay partisan claims about sex scandals like extramarital affairs, especially if such scandals do not violate the law or involve abuses of power.
Every word of news, whether written or spoken, is shaped by a multitude of political, economic and institutional forces. Although political biases can certainly color press accounts of scandal (Pugilisi & Snyder, 2011), scandal news is not simply result of partisan chicanery.
The news is also a “product” or “commodity” that audiences purchase (Hamilton, 2004;
McManus, 1994; 1995). News topics that audiences find desirable are generally topics that news producers find desirable; journalists and editors understandably want to retain and grow their audience base. It is no wonder then, that the press to a certain extent allows audience demand to influence its coverage. Since the press is a business, it has incentive to give audiences interesting and colorful content in order to attract even larger audiences. Expanding audiences, younger audiences in particular, increase sales of news products such as newspaper or online news subscriptions, simultaneously increasing the likelihood that advertisers will buy column inches or broadcast time that reaches very large, very desirable consumer demographics (Hamilton, 2004).
Since news is intended to be pleasurable to watch or read, it often focuses on entertainment or “soft news” involving political gamesmanship (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996;
Fallows, 1997) and titillating scandals (Schudson, 2004), just as much or more so than hardhitting public affairs (McManus, 1994; 1995). The press is, at least in part, a commercial entity that lives and dies by the audience’s hand. For it to be an organ of democracy, providing crucial political information to citizens, it needs first to survive economically. If it comes down to an editorial choice between reporting salacious news about a politician’s sex life or relatively bland information about financial malfeasance, journalists are incentivized to err on the side of
entertaining, provocative narratives, whereas the dry facts of financial scandals are often dull.
Moreover, the kind of “human drama” commonly involved in a political sex scandal is easy for both journalists and audiences to understand. Everyone who was alive at the time still remembers to whom “Monica” and to what the “blue dress” refers. These terms entered public discourse by way of a highly publicized affair between former Democratic President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky, an affair that drew around-the-clock media attention for the better part of 1998. This real-life political drama was a compelling story about a man who lived the American Dream, rising up from his humble beginnings in rural Arkansas to become the leader of the free world, only to have a successful career torn asunder by accusations of impropriety.
Audiences may have puzzled over the political risk involved in the affair, yet Clinton’s public approval ratings remained strong after the scandal was revealed (Zaller, 1998), suggesting that audiences could understand and were willing to forgive Clinton’s very basic human failing as well as his desire to keep his sexual affairs private. The Lewsinky scandal was easy for audiences to grasp because it involved only a handful of actors – Clinton, his wife, and Lewinsky – and described an interpersonal relationship as old as human sexuality itself.
Contrast coverage of sex scandals like Clinton’s with financial corruption. Does the average citizen – or journalist, for that matter – comprehend the financial transactions that occurred between former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Republican Representative John Doolittle and other relevant members of Congress? Even though the Abramoff scandal first made national media attention seven years after the Lewinsky affair, in 2005, it is likely that those alive at the time remember relatively fewer details about that scandal than the Lewinsky affair.
Why? Its details of conspiracy and financial fraud may simply be too complex compared to the
Sexual scandals are easy for journalists and audiences to understand, and should therefore garner more coverage than scandal involving the complexities of campaign finance or the tax code.
Routine, institutional factors also influence the daily headlines and the amount of coverage a particular event, such as a political scandal, receives. First, it is widely understood that official sources drive press coverage. News media producers, including journalists and editors, have working relationships with political officials, exchanging the opportunity for publicity for the opportunity to get the inside scoop on the latest political dealings (Cook, 1996;
2005). In this way, the news media is a kind of “Fourth Branch” of American government, acting as an intermediary institution between the other branches. Political information about all three branches – Executive, Legislative and Judicial – flow through the press, between braches, and to the public. The flow of information involves the regular practice of journalists relying on political officials for their political content. Political scandals, in this way, are often dependent on statements by both likeminded officials and members of the opposition party. Indeed, as Enmtan (2012) suggests, opposition party officials often keep scandals alive, making additional allegations and revelations that keeps the press interested in pursuing misconduct.
Since news media producers rely on official statements for news content, this also implies that any scandal involving a high-ranking official who has a pre-established working relationship with journalists – especially the President of the United States and officials from the Executive Branch – may receive relatively more coverage than scandals involving U.S. state officials who may not have regular access to national media. The president commands national media attention.
As such, there is an expectation that any scandal affecting the Executive branch should garner more coverage than scandals involving, for instance, state governors. Journalists also have
Therefore, news media should give more attention to scandals involving members of Congress than to scandals involving state officials. All news media relies on official statements, such as press releases, to motivate political coverage. This routine also pertains to scandal coverage.
Journalistic reliance on official sources should also decrease scandal coverage in cases of speedy resignations from office, i.e., resignations that occur within two weeks of the initial revelations. One purpose of making an official statement about a scandal is to generate news coverage that will damage the symbolic power of the opposition party, including its members’ reputation and trust (Entman, 2012; Thompson, 2000). When the accused official(s) resign their political positions quickly, they remove all vestiges of substantive or symbolic power.
Consequently, scandal coverage should die down. The news is constrained, in part, by official sources. And when an accused official resigns from office, the original purpose of releasing information about a scandal – to damage the official – is removed from the equation.
Finally, institutional factors associated with the medium through which news is disseminated also shape press coverage. The “slow” and “logical” medium of printed newspapers and its limited daily “newshole” forces editors to eliminate pure entertainment content to make room for more hard-hitting public affairs news (Hamilton, 2004). Meanwhile, the 24/7 nature of cable and radio news, and the potentially infinite newshole of online news channels allow for more coverage of entertainment-driven politics. The nature of the medium, in the case of cable, radio and online news, suggests an opportunity to provide additional coverage of entertaining politics, specifically, scandal. Compared to print newspapers, cable television, radio and online news outlets should give more attention to any type of political scandal.
2014). At a given moment, the press has a range of official political news it can choose to publicize. When congress is in session, for instance, the number of official political statements increases. During the summer, when congress is adjourned and the president is vacationing, there is little noteworthy political activity unless a national emergency sparks urgent coverage.
Weekends and holidays are also periods of decreased political activity, as are particular days of the week (e.g., Fridays) when relatively less official business transpires. For these reasons, there are fairly predictable daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal shocks to the media agenda. One week the national news agenda may be to “congested” to discuss what amount to an official’s trivial sexual liaisons. During an uneventful summer, a relatively trivial sex scandal may be blown up into Watergate proportions. For these reasons, it is also expected that day in which a scandal first gains national attention should alter how the intensity of press response.
To assess differences in press coverage of financial and sexual scandals, this study combined publicly available news coverage data from the Pew Research Center’s News Coverage Index (NCI) with aggregated data on each scandal mentioned in the NCI. The NCI is an ongoing content analysis of news coverage that started Jan. 1, 2007 and was available through May 31, 2012. Pew’s unit of analysis was the news story. Fourteen trained Pew coders coded news stories, with a calculated percent agreement of 100% for story date, 96% for source, and 87% agreement for “big story” topic. While a simple percent agreement reliability statistic does not take into account random coder agreement (Riffe, Lacy, & Fico, 2005), the percentages for
were reasonably clear enough that little random error in story codes should theoretically exist.
Pew administrators selected news stories for coding using a multistage purposive sampling method. According to Pew, this method was employed “because of differences in measuring systems across media” (Pew, 2012). Random sampling from a diverse array of media content would not account for the number of news outlets in a given sector (e.g., cable TV news), the amount of news programming in each outlet, or audience reach. It would also fail to account for medium-specific variation in story length; for instance, word counts in a print article or a cable news transcript. Thus, all NCI data are selected and weighted to account for variation in formats, and potential audience reach across mediums (Pew, 2012).
This study used an inductive method to identify and select scandal cases from the Pew NCI. For scandal cases to be included in this analysis, each scandal event had to meet several criteria. First, the scandal had to be available in the Pew data, meaning that it had to have occurred between January 1, 2007 and May 31, 2012. Scandals occurring before 2007 or after May 2012 were not included in the analysis. Second, scandal coverage had to affect a prominent political figure, including a member of, or someone directly linked to members of the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branches, or a state governor. While covered heavily, “celebrity scandals” or controversies such as the Jerry Sandusky Penn State child sex abuse case were not included in the analysis since these cases did not directly relate to politics. Finally, the scandal had to refer to a financial or sexual transgression. Scandals that referred to a breach of sexual mores, such as the disclosure that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer hired prostitutes were considered “sex scandals.” Events that described immoral or illegal financial conduct, such as former Louisiana Representative William Jefferson’s bribery case, were considered examples of “financial
related stories in the Pew NCI. Appendix A shows a full list of scandals included in the analysis.
Measures. Control Variables. Several dummy variables were included in the analysis, to account for aspects of the scandal scenarios, including the behavior of the accused, as well as the political and media contexts. First, a dummy variable was created assessing whether the official(s) accused resigned within two weeks of the scandal revelations. Approximately 18.52% of scandals in the analysis involved officials who resigned within two weeks of receiving national attention. It is notable that all of these resignations were sex scandals involving a member of Congress (e.g., former Democratic Representative Eric Massa). A continuous control variable called duration assessed the number of years the scandal appeared in Pew NCI coverage (M = 1.11, SD = 0.22, range = 0 to 4). The majority of scandal events (37.04%) lasted less than one year. A dummy variable called Republican was used to assess whether scandal stories affected mainly Democratic (59.26%) or Republican officials (40.74%). Another dummy control variable assessed whether the scandal involved a misdemeanor or felony criminal offense (22.22% involved a criminal offense). A dummy variable was also used to control for whether the accused official conducted proactive publicity in defense of their conduct (3.70%). Only in the case of Rod Blagojevich’s bribery scandal did officials engage in proactive defense of their conduct. This meant that officials sought media publicity in order to defend their actions.