«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
2013; Nyhan, 2014), the graphs illustrated in Figure 5 show CNN and Fox paying more attention to a provocative, high profile sex scandal than an equally high profile financial controversy.
Press coverage of political scandal does not appear, “properly calibrated” (Entman, 2012, p. 2) to the severity of the allegations. Financial scandals can do considerable damage to the public’s trust in government, creating doubt about the honesty of officials, and possibly generating legal complications. The majority of official sexual indiscretions are private matters that do little harm to the daily business of government, or to society, excepting any illegal sexual activity. Why then, does the press give more attention, on average, to relatively trivial political sex scandals, while dubious financial dealings of national officials are downplayed?
One answer explored in this chapter focuses on the role of media incentives and institutional routines. Perhaps the most crucial set of incentives discussed in this study are economic: the desire of a news organization to make profits by using entertaining and salacious political scandal news to increase audience size and sell advertising (Hamilton, 2004). Since sex scandals often involve simple and provocative narratives, the journalistic community may view them as low-hanging fruit. In a world of intense market competition and shrinking news budgets (Arnold, 2006), a sex scandal may represent an easy opportunity to generate more audience interest in news products, resulting in increases in advertising revenues. Consistent with Patterson (1994, p. 36), it appears that, in the case of political scandal, the norms of the news business may be at odds with the norms of politics. While financial scandals often violate democratic, ethical and legal norms, they are usually given less media attention than are sex
concerns about scandal typology when deciding how much attention a transgression receives.
In fact, it appears that the press may place economic incentives and institutional routines before democratic values. With declining newsroom budgets and fewer personnel, news organizations may place more stock in covering provocative stories about sex scandals, stories that receive and sustain audience attention. Simultaneously, the press may be increasingly unable, or unwilling, to invest dwindling resources in the probing of more complex financial scandals. At the end of the day, it instead may simply be more cost effective and convenient to allow officials to release statements disclosing scandal details, and to write scandal news based off of official statements. As long as officials are making statements about a scandal, institutional routines demand coverage. It appears the one effective way at mitigating coverage is for an official to resign quickly. Scandal coverage is driven in part by the media’s institutional routines, routines that also be leveraged to eliminate coverage. Nevertheless, resigning an official position is tantamount to electoral defeat, and represents the loss of both substantive and symbolic power.
Patterns of scandal news coverage are influenced by news media sector. Radio outlets tend to focus more on financial scandals than sexual scandals (H2A), while online and network television news mediums provide more coverage to sexual misconduct relative to financial malfeasance (H2B). It is plausible that the format of mediums like radio that do not rely on visuals, are able to provide more in-depth coverage of financial scandals. Oddly, and counter to the hypotheses, major print newspapers that tend to focus on “hard news” and cable television networks that tend to focus on “soft news” paid roughly equal attention to sexual and financial scandal. It is possible that some news sources within each media sector alter these broad patterns.
of differential sexual and financial scandal coverage. While The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal provided equal amounts of attention to sexual and financial scandals, the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and NPR’s Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation provided gave more coverage to financial scandals (H3A). One explanation for this may be that PBS and NPR are non-profit media organizations. There is less motivation for PBS and NPR to increase audience attention (and advertising revenues) by promoting salacious sex scandals. H3B predicted that “soft news” sources would provide more attention to controversial and provocative sexual misconduct than the relatively complex and bureaucratic financial scandal scenario. This hypothesis was supported. The Today Show, The Early Show, Good Morning America, and The Huffington Post news website all provided more attention to sexual misbehavior than the financial misdeeds of elected officials. This does not imply that the sources ignored breaking events surrounding financial scandal. It does suggest that financial scandals may be viewed as less newsworthy or less appealing by editors, producers, or reporters at these particular outlets.
Partisan calculations also influence patterns of scandal news coverage (H4A and H4B).
Human beings are motivated to protect members of their social (Tajfel, 1982) and political groups (Huddy, 2013), and previous research shows evidence of partisan bias in news coverage (Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2011), in particular, newspaper coverage of political scandal (Pugilisi & Snyder, 2011). Consistent with previous research, this chapter demonstrates a partisan mechanism in cable TV news coverage, with conservative-leaning Fox News providing relatively more attention to scandals that may damage the reputation of liberal and Democratic officials. The same partisan bias was found with regard to CNN, the liberal-leaning news outlet.
CNN paid more attention to scandals that may harm the reputations of Republican officials.
demonstrated by Fox and CNN. First, partisan coverage may engender biased perceptions of, and memories about, political reality (Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2011). Individuals who only watch Fox, in this case, may come away from programming believing that the Republican Party is relatively scandal-free, while the Democrats are swindlers and sex fiends. CNN viewers may hold a reverse pattern of impressions about officials. Additionally, partisan coverage may enhance partisan polarization among citizens. Accusations hurled at members of the opposition party may reinforce a perception that opposition party members are “others” or outsiders that are not part of their own political group (Tafjel, 1982; Huddy, 2013), possibly delegitimizing their power or their perceived right to govern. In either event, partisan influences on scandal coverage may have real-world effects that lead to miscalculated punishments at the ballot box, distorted partisan perceptions and increased polarization. Future research could explore the impact of partisan scandal coverage on perceptions, polarization and voter turnout in national elections.
The world of politics is distant and the halls of power remote. Average citizens receive only fleeting glimpses of national and international political events, mostly through news media.
Accordingly, the press holds considerable sway over a citizen’s view of political reality (see Lippmann, 1997). Scandal information, for instance, is not brought to the citizen raw and undigested, but is rather filtered through the gatekeeping processes of the press, with journalists and editors deciding the words, phrases and structure belonging to political scandal narratives.
The manner and frequency in which news reports political scandals may, in turn, have real effects on audience evaluations of the accused, possibly leading to electoral defeat, distraction from party goals, and the mitigation or elimination of the symbolic power of reputation and trustworthiness. In this sense, the press holds all the cards. Only through press publicity can officials’ misbehavior reach the level of “scandal” (see Entman, 2012; Marion, 2010; Thompson, 2000). Without the watchful eye of the press and its ability to publicize scandal, crosscutting accusations of official misconduct would fall on deaf ears. For a scandal to be a scandal, it must involve the press and its ability to investigate and magnify the events in question.
When citizens encounter a news report about a financial or sex scandal, how do they evaluate the accused official? A number of empirical studies have examined individual-level factors that influence scandal evaluations. In general, scandals that raise questions about financial malfeasance are evaluated more harshly than scandals about moral or sexual violations, unless the violation involves an additional abuse of power related to the actions in question (Doherty et al., 2011; Sigal et al., 1988). Other factors include the race and gender of the official (Berinsky et al., 2011; Carlson et al., 2000), the official’s personal traits such as warmth and
public’s preexisting levels of cynicism (Dancey, 2011), perceived party support of the accused official (Stewart, Rose, Rosales, Rudney, Lehner, Miltich, Snyder & Sadecki, 2013), ideologically motivated adherence to specific moral values like Fairness or Sanctity (Haidt, 2012), and the methods that the official employs to impression manage scandal accusations, including a denial of the accusations or publicly acknowledging scandal claims and issuing a formal apology (McGraw, 1991; Sigal et al., 1988; Smith, Smith Powers, & Suarez, 2005).
This chapter explores the impact of scandal publicity on individual-level evaluations using a survey-experimental method. The analysis focuses on differences in evaluations caused by typological differences: financial vs. sexual misconduct. It also accounts for group and ideologically motivated processing of scandal information. Citizens often report possessing different ideological orientations – liberal or conservative – that may influence how they judge a scandal affecting a representative of their affiliated group, in this case, the Democratic Party or Republican Party. Moreover, ideologically motivated values such as Fairness and Sanctity may also influence evaluations. Since conservatives often make moral evaluations on the basis of the Sanctity / Degradation moral value dimension, it is expected that conservatives will respond more negatively to a sex scandal than will liberals. The role of political knowledge in scandal evaluations is also considered. Political knowledge has been linked to improved policy attitude stability (Sturgis & Smith, 2010) and a variety of other beneficial outcomes (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Gomez & Wilson, 2001). Individuals with high levels of political knowledge may be able to make sense of scandal consequences, doling out harsher punishments to officials accused of financial scandals than officials accused of sex scandals. Alternatively, political knowledge has been shown to bias information processing, such that knowledgeable individuals
2013). Having vast stores of political knowledge means the individual is better able to connect the gamesmanship in partisan message framing to beliefs held by their side of the political aisle.
In a scandal scenario, knowledgeable individuals may therefore put an equally harsh punishment on an official accused of a sex scandal than a similar official accused of financial misconduct.
Data. To investigate individual evaluations of financial and sex scandals, an experiment was embedded in a survey available to participants through Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk system for the time period of December 16 to December 23, 2013. The Mechanical Turk system allows any United States citizen over the age of 18 with an Amazon account to participate in various human intelligence tasks (HITs) in exchange for a small monetary reward. Sampling from the Mechanical Turk participant pool is not random, as participants self-select a given task, including surveys listed in the system. However, Mechanical Turk samples are more representative of the U.S. population than student samples and other types of convenience samples (Berinsky, Huber, and Lenz 2012), lending external validity to experimental results.
Using an automated randomizer in the Qualtrics survey software program, participants (n = 148) were randomly presented with one of four conditions involving a news story about a fictitious U.S. Senator, "Sam Hall," a Republican or Democrat who has been accused of improper financial or sexual behavior. Each news story stimulus was designed using Adobe InDesign software and was made to appear as realistic as possible (see Appendix B). Participants were told that the news story recently appeared in “a major daily newspaper.” There were four treatments in which Senator Hall’s party cue – Republican or Democrat and scandal cue – financial or sexual – were manipulated. Consistent with previous research
cues in this 2X2 full factorial design theoretically allows the study to isolate the effects of financial and sexual scandal types on evaluations of the official, while accounting for the official’s party identification. Overall, the party identification cue was explicitly manipulated in three prominent locations in each treatment stimuli, including the lead paragraph and the photo caption. The scandal cue was manipulated seven times, including the headline of the article by alternating the words “improper sexual relationships” with “improper use of campaign funds.” Table 2.
Descriptive Statistics for Individual-Level Evaluations Analysis
assessed (Table 2). These included sex, age, ethnicity, years of formal educational, and annual income. Since religiosity may be a predictor of attitudes toward sexual or financial misconduct, participants were also asked how often they attended church or a place of worship, from “never” to “more than once a week.” Party identification was measured by asking participants whether they identified as a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. Political ideology, the primary moderating variable, was measured on a 7-point Likert scale that asked participants if they considered themselves very liberal to very conservative (M = 2.66, sd = 1.80, range 0 to 6).