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Transcript of Issue Bias: How Issue Coverage and Media Bias Affect · PDF file1 Issue Bias: How Issue...

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    Issue Bias: How Issue Coverage and Media Bias Affect Voter Perceptions of Elections

    It is virtually a truism in American politics that a focus on some issue areas during election campaigns, like national security or traditional values, redounds to the benefit of Republicans, while emphasis on other areas, like education or social security, benefits Democrats. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as issue ownership (Petrocik 1996, Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994). To the extent that one or the other party benefits disproportionately from media emphasis on particular issues during election campaigns, it is possible that, whether intended or not, media coverage may disproportionately benefit one or the other party. If so, this would appear to be an important potential form of bias.

    Baum and Gussin (2004) find that typical individuals use media outlet labels as a heuristic, to assess the validity of information presented by different outlets. Liberals tended to find a conservative bias in outlets they believed, ex ante, have a conservative slant, even if the content was actually from an outlet that they believed to have a liberal slant. The opposite was true for conservatives. We extend that research by investigating how issue ownership and the Hostile Media Outlet Phenomenon mediate, separately and in interaction, voter perceptions of media campaign coverage. We look at the effects of story selection on individuals perceptions concerning which party benefits more from media issue coverage. To do so, we conducted an experimental content analysis in which we asked subjects to code transcripts and articles, from eight major network and cable news broadcasts and newspapers, about the 2000 presidential campaign.

    We modified the transcripts and articles to create three distinct sets of treatment stimuli. One set correctly identified the source of the material. The second incorrectly identified the source and, in the third, all identifying elements were removed. We investigate whether individuals with differing political preferences are more or less likely to view certain issues as favorable to one or the other party, as well as the extent to which their propensity to do so is mediated by media outlets brand names, independent of the true sources of news coverage. We find that, except when they have strong prior beliefs about the ideological orientation of a media outlet, our subjects rely far more on issue ownership as a heuristic than on the hostile media heuristic. However, when they do have strong prior beliefs regarding outlet ideology, the opposite pattern prevails, with subjects relying on the hostile media heuristic to evaluate news content.

    Matthew A. Baum (mbaum@ucla.edu)

    and

    Phil Gussin (pgussin@ucla.edu)

    University of California, Los Angeles

    Department of Political Science, Box 951472 Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472

    This paper was prepared for delivery at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington D.C., 1-4 September

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    It is virtually a truism in American politics that a focus on some issue areas during

    election campaigns, like national security or traditional values, redounds to the benefit of Republicans, while emphasis on other areas, like education or social security, benefits Democrats. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as issue ownership (Petrocik 1996, Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994). To the extent that one or the other party benefits disproportionately from media emphasis on particular issues during election campaigns, it is possible that, whether intended or not, media coverage may benefit one party more than the other. If so, this would appear to be an important potential source of individual perceptions of bias in the media.

    When candidates adopt an issue ownership strategy -- that is, a strategy designed to frame the election around the issues that their party owns -- any assignment of electoral benefits unfolds in a three-stage process. The first stage commences before the electoral contest begins, as voters calculate the relative competence of the major political parties in handling specific issues and problems. In the second stage, as the campaign begins, candidates attempt to take advantage of these estimates of competence by emphasizing issues that are electorally advantageous to themselves. In the third stage, after determining which issues are most important, voters decide which candidates are best suited to handle them.

    Previous research on issue ownership (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994; Holian 2004; Kaufmann 2000; Petrocik 1996; Petrocik 1994; Petrocik, Beniot, and Hansen 2003) has focused primarily on the first and second stages of the process. For example, to understand the first stage, researchers have examined survey responses to questions asking for global assessments of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the major political parties in handling certain issues (Petrocik, Beniot, and Hansen 2003). In assessing the second stage, others (e.g., Holian 2004) have conducted content analyses to determine the extent to which candidates succeeded in shaping the issue agenda.

    In this paper, we examine the third stage of the process. We adopt an information processing perspective that conceptualizes voters as cognitive misers who, whenever possible, use heuristics to reduce the effort required to make reasoned choices.1 In the same way that political parties develop reputations for being better able to handle certain issues, evidence suggests that individuals distinguish between different media outlets and, as a result, media outlet brand names. As a consequence, the reputations media outlets carry function as heuristics, heavily influencing individuals perceptions of news content (Baum and Gussin 2004). This is potentially important because one implication of the issue ownership literature is that media coverage of issues owned by a given candidates party favors that candidate more than coverage of issues owned by an opponents party favors the opposing candidate. The heuristic value of media outlet brand names raises the possibility that individuals assessments concerning the ideological orientation of specific media outlets may affect their perceptions of which candidate receives more favorable issue coverage, thereby enhancing or negating the effectiveness of an issue ownership strategy. Indeed, it may also affect the extent to which viewers perceive coverage of a given issue as favoring one or the other party.

    1 The presumption of credibility or competence regarding the handling of certain issues is one of a handful of heuristic devices that voters typically employ (Sniderman et al. 1991, Popkin 1994).

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    Alternatively, it may be that a partys reputation for being better able to handle certain issues mitigates or overwhelms the effect of the hostile media outlet phenomenon (HMOP) (Baum and Gussin 2004). Our previous findings suggest that an individuals ideological orientation, in combination with her assessment of the ideological orientation of specific media outlets, significantly influences perceptions of bias, thereby suggesting that bias is located in the eye of the beholder rather than the content of the news. In this respect, the theory of issue ownership is quite different from the HMOP. The issue ownership framework does not hold that the internal characteristics of news consumers mediate perceptions of which party receives favorable coverage of certain issues. Nor does it hold that, for example, coverage of national defense (Social Security) benefits the Republican (Democratic) Party conditional on which frame the media employs. Rather, it simply argues that, regardless of how the media frames a particular issue, the party that owns the issue will benefit from the coverage more than the other party. In other words, the theory of issue ownership suggests that news content drives perceptions of favorability.

    A great many studies have found evidence of a hostile media phenomenon (Baum and Gussin 2004; Christen, Kannaovakun, and Gunther 2002; Dalton, Beck, and Huckfeldt 1998; Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken 1994; Gunther and Chin-Yun Chia 2001; Gunther and Christen 2002; Gunther, Christen, and Kannaovakun 2002; Gunther and Schmitt 2004; Morehouse 2001; Morehouse Mendez 2004; Peffley, Glass, and Avery 2001; Perloff 1989; Vallone, Ross, and Lepper 1985). Likewise, study after study including our own points to the pervasive influence of issue ownership (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994; Holian 2004; Kaufmann 2000; Petrocik 1996; Petrocik 1994; Petrocik, Beniot, and Hansen 2003). More importantly, these well-substantiated theories, in certain instances, make very different predictions. For example, what happens when a conservative (liberal) encounters coverage of a Republican (Democrat) owned issue on a hostile media outlet? The HMOP predicts that she will perceive the coverage as favorable to the Democrats (Republicans). The theory of issue ownership predicts the opposite; that she will perceive the coverage as favorable to the Republicans (Democrats). How do individuals resolve competing signals? The answer to this question has important implications for both theories.

    To explore this and other related questions, in this study we report the results of an experiment designed to assess the extent to which voters perceptions of the ideological orientation of individual media outlets shape subsequent assessments of the favorability of issue coverage. This approach allows us to estimate the extent to which subjects impressions of news coverage conform to expectations set out in the issue ownership literature. Our results suggest, among other things, that the signals